New Testament Canon
There were many books outside the New Testament which were commonly used by churches in Europe, Alexandria in church. Such as: Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Preaching of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospel According to, the Egyptians, Gospel According to the Hebrews, etcetera. Especially Shepherd of Hermas was very widely read. I’ve read of others that are not in the Bible now.
It is important to clarify what exactly the issue at stake is. With each of these books individually a strong case can be made that they clearly did not belong in the New Testament and the critic should be in agreement with the early church on why they didn’t include it in the canon. In other words, based on the theology of the texts, their later date, and the way they were used by the early church, the critic should be in agreement that they don’t belong in the New Testament. I will look at each book below individually.
However it seems that the critic is suggesting that the mere existence of a variety of extra-biblical texts or passages cast doubt on the canon of the Bible just by their very existence. This is an extremely weak argument for a Muslim critic, because there are similar variant texts that may have been included in the Quran.
There were three criteria for distinguishing the canonical from the non-canonical:
- Apostolicity—authorship by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle
- Orthodoxy or non-contradiction with the Old Testament
- Catholicity or widespread usage throughout the church.
There is complete agreement on the books of the New Testament between the three major sects of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox). The only two books that have any serious questions whether they should have been part of the canon are the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas:
Epistle of Barnabas
- Apostolicity – The first mention of this writing was by Clement of Alexandria around 190 AD, and the earliest text we have is c. 330–360 AD. No modern scholar believes this writing was written by Barnabas and it is dated around 130 AD (after the apostolic generation), so it failed the apostolicity test.
- In terms of orthodoxy, it has an incredibly negative view of the Law of Moses going far beyond that of St Paul, claiming that the Jews never had a covenant with God and the devil inspired the Jews to literally obey the law (source). Thus it doesn’t fit the orthodoxy criteria.
- Catholicity – The only early mentions of the book are from Alexandria, and it was never accepted in the early Western church. When it has been included in lists it is under the “disputed” category or “appendix” separate from the New Testament.
Shepherd of Hermas
The Shepherd of Hermas was a popular early Christian writing, but not part of the New Testament:
- Apostolicity – The majority scholarly opinion is that it was written around 140 AD, and no-one claims it was written by an apostle of the close associate of an apostle. The early (2nd century) Muratorian canon list explains why it was rejected:
“But Hermas wrote the Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read, but it cannot be read publicly to the people of the church either among the prophets, whose number is complete, or among the apostles, for it is after [their] time.”
In other words it is a good writing, but not part of scripture.
- Orthodoxy – The Shepherd was a popular writing since it is generally consistent with Old and New Testaments in theology, though it doesn’t really contribute much new or different.
- Catholicity – Although Irenaeus quoted once from the Shepherd, no early Christian leader has suggested that it is one of the books of the New Testament. The North African Christian leader Tertullian (~200 AD) wrote around 200 AD: “The Shepherd … [is] judged by every council of the Churches, even of your own Churches, among the apocryphal and false.”
A much more detailed discussion of the Shepherd of Hermas is found here.
Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans
We know Paul wrote quick a number of letters, among which was one to the Laodiceans mentioned in Colossians 4:16. Several much later texts claim to be this missing letter, but where considered both at the time and by modern scholarship to be fakes. Even the most credible option (a Latin Epistola ad Laodicenses) is considered “clumsy forgery” (Miracle and mission Page 151 James A. Kelhoffer – 2000).
1 Clement, 2 Clement
Clement was clearly not one of the apostles, as he was not even born at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection, although his first letter was written soon after the New Testament (~95 AD). This clearly invalidates his writings from being part of the New Testament canon. 1 Clement seems to be a genuine letter of this early church leader, though 2 Clement may not be genuine. Clements writings are generally orthodox in theology and advise its readers to “take up the epistle of the blessed apostle Paul”, giving a high view of the New Testament writings.
Preaching of Peter
The Preaching of Peter is a set of quotations from Clement (you can read them here). This is not part of the New Testament because it fails the criteria of Catholicity (universality), in that it was never suggested by anyone as being part of the New Testament. None of the early lists ever suggested that it was considered part of the New Testament canon.
Apocalypse of Peter
Although it is mentioned in the Muratorian canon of 180 AD it is qualified that “some of us will not allow the latter to be read in church”. The reason the Apocalypse of Peter is not in the Bible is because it doesn’t fit the criteria of apostolicity : it was not written by an apostle. Scholarship is agreed that it was written in the 2nd century (decades after Peter’s death). It also fails the test of Catholicity (universality) in that it was not used or accepted widely.
Gospel of the Egyptians
This Alexandrine writing about the benefits of celibacy was written around 120-150 AD, well after the apostolic period. For this reason it clearly was never a candidate for being part of the New Testament. Another writing called the “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians” or “the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit” from the Nag Hammadi library is also dated 120-180 AD, well after the apostolic period (read more here).
Gospel According to the Hebrews/Nazoraeans/Ebionites/Cerinthus
These writings may all be variant names of the same writing, and all date from the 2nd century well after the time of the apostles. So they fail the test of apostolicity, and also fail the test of catholicity because they were not widely recognized as scripture. Red more here.
Looking at each of these books individually, it is clear that none of them are serious candidates for having been in the New Testament, because they didn’t fulfill the criterion. In contrast to all of these non-biblical writings, the core writings of the New Testament (eg Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, etc) have a hundred times more attestation (early mention and evidence) from early church writings and historical documents.
Luther made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (notably, he perceived them to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola gratia and sola fide) but this was not generally accepted among his followers. However, these books are ordered last in the German-language Luther Bible to this day.
Wikipedia is hardly a reliable source, and in this case it is wrong. Even opponents of Luther (Catholics) acknowledge that although he certainly didn’t like James & Revelation he never actually tried to remove them from the Bible. In any case, Luther didn’t have the authority to rearrange the Bible any more than any of his followers.