The Formation and Transmission of the New Testament
One of the speakers to address the Synod of Bishops just completed in Rome was His Excellency, the Most Reverend Sylvester Carmel Magro, O.F.M., Titular Bishop of Salde, Apostolic Vicar of Benghazi.
The Bishop's topic, the formation of the Canon of the New Testament, probably had the more er...educated members of the Synod squirming in their seats when he made the most breathtakingly outrageous claims of Roman Catholic "authority" over the scriptures.
He told the meeting that:
"Many of the faithful are unaware of the role of the Church in the formation of the Canon of the Scriptures.
"They are conscious of the importance which the Church accords to the Word of God, but fail to appreciate the role of the Magisterium in identifying the "canon" of the Holy Books.
"They do not realize that ultimately it was the Church who authenticated the Bible. In actual fact the Bible presupposes the Church and depends on the Church for its own authentication ... The Church precedes the Scriptures.
"Therefore, it should be made clear to the People of God that ultimately there had to be "some authority" capable of determining which books had to be considered authentic, or divinely inspired and so be included in the official list or "canon" of the New Testament in particular, while excluding the rest as "apocrypha", that is lacking divine inspiration.
"It was the Church Authority which actually authenticated the books which today we believe as making part of our Bible. This process of identification lasted almost five centuries. The Church did this after long investigations and decided upon it in local and regional councils during which the matter was exhaustively studied.
"The complete Christian "canon" or list of the New Testament Scriptures, was attested to by St. Athanasius in 367 A.D., but accepted universally only with the Synod of Rome in 380 and the councils of Hippo and Carthage (A D. 417)."It is the Church which came before the Scriptures; the Church that produced the Scriptures with divine assistance, and that preserved their integrity through the threats of persecution and heresy - it is the Church that gathered the Scriptures together in a book - a book that sustains all who call themselves Christian." (Scott Hahn).
The Bishop, either through naivete or to deflect criticism, has repeated Scott Hahn's pious fictions designed for a gullible public. They do not stand up under even the mildest scrutiny. Scott Hahn is a former Protestant minister who converted to Roman Catholicism and is now one of her chief apologists. With such books under his belt as "Hail Holy Queen, The Mother of God in the Word of God" and "Rome Sweet Home," we may take all his writings with more than a few grains of salt.
The facts are that the earliest churches in Jerusalem, Samaria, Lydda, Caesarea, Antioch etc. were all separate entities and from the earliest times were in possession of the various materials which form our present NT. The formation of the canon was due to a growing grass-roots consensus rather than a decision that was handed down by ecclesiastical authorities. The canon was not imposed by church leaders or by councils - they stand at the end of the process rather than at the beginning.
No action of a council or a synod was early enough to have had a decisive influence on the course of events. The council decrees have the form: "This council declares that these are the books which have always been held to be canonical".
And even if it had been a "church" that selected the canon, it would certainly not have been the Roman Catholic Church as all Ecumenical Councils before 900 AD were held in the Greek East and all were convoked by the Emperor from Constantinople. At these Councils, where the 'Nature of God' was defined and determined for all generations, Roman bishops made an insignificant contribution. For instance, out of a total attendance of 318 at the Council of Nicea, the Latins could boast of only 7 representatives.
The order of church development was conditioned by the availability of scriptures in the common tongue. The New Testament writings passed from Hebrew* to Greek and thence into Latin, and the churches developed in similar order. The Latin churches, in the centuries when they were without the authoritative word, relied a great deal upon unauthoritative and wholly unreliable tradition.
The Councils of Rome, Hippo and Carthage to which the Bishop refers were regional synods and merely decided which books were to appear in the approved Catholic Bible. Just as this present 21st Century Synod is not a universal or ecumenical council and has no authority to speak on behalf of the whole of the 21st Century Christian Church, neither did those 4th Century Synods have the authority to speak for the whole of the 4th Century Christian Church.
By the time the Councils of Rome, Hippo and Carthage had addressed the matter, the list of books recognized as forming the New Testament was well established:
"What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council. When at last a Church Council, the Synod of Carthage in A.D. 397, listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity." (F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments)
As F.F.Bruce also states in The Canon of the New Testament:
"It was specially important to determine which books might be used for the establishment of Christian doctrine, and which might most confidently be appealed to in disputes with heretics...One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognising their innate worth and general apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa — at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 — but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities."
On 15 May 2007, Father Raneiro Cantamalessa, the Pontifical Household preacher, directly contradicted Bishop Magro and Scott Hahn while commenting on a book by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce, entitled "Inchiesta su Gesù" (An Investigation on Jesus):
"...In regard to the canon of the Scriptures, Pesce rightly affirms (p. 16) that the definitive list of the present 27 books of the New Testament was determined only with Athanasius in 367, but we must not be silent about the fact that its essential nucleus, composed of the four Gospels along with the thirteen Pauline epistles, is much more ancient; it was formed around the year 130 and at the end of the second century it already enjoyed the same authority as the Old Testament..."
Oh...what a tangled web we weave...
* It has been overwhelmingly demonstrated by Claude Tresmontant, Father Jean Carmignac, Professor David Flusser, and many other eminent scholars, that the original accounts of Jesus' life were composed in Hebrew before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and that the Greek gospels which have come down to us represent a third or fourth stage in the written transmission of these accounts.