A Radical Spirituality with Universal Appeal
Malaspina Great Books, Established 1995; Created by Russell McNeil, PhD, Visitors:

With the growing importance of global warming, Climate News Live provides up-to-date news and information. This is a non-partisan source of timely news articles, current events, and the relevant topics that are shaping the public policy debate in the United States and elsewhere. ... (click on picture or headline above for more)
Go to Home Record in Frames 

Malaspina Global PortalOn the web since 1995Search by Period or CategoryBook StoreTell us what you think
Liberal Studies Great Books Program 

Malaspina University CollegeSelect a LetterOriginal Classics Translations, Lectures and General Study Materials

Great Books Home PageCritical non-mainstream News Analysis

title author

Malaspina Great Books Blog

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Selections Annotated and Explained by Malaspina Great Books Web Editor Russell McNeil PhD
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Selections Annotated and Explained

Russell McNeil, PhD
Editor, Malaspina Great Books

In 1862 the English literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold described Marcus Aurelius as "the most beautiful figure in history." The Stoicism of Aurelius is grounded in rationality and rests solidly on an ethical approach rooted in nature. Stoicism promises real happiness and joy in this life and a serenity that can never be soured by personal misfortune. This philosophy has universal appeal with practical implications on problems ranging from climate change and terrorism to the personal management of sickness, aging, depression and addiction. I truly believe that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has much to offer us now...(Click on book cover for more)

Biographical Material on this EntryGreat 

BooksGreat Books and Library CitationsRepresentative ImageDictionary and Thesaurus
Ancient Literature
Name:New Testament

Birth Year:c . 140 CE
Death Year:na
Representative Image:
Biography, Lectures, and Research Links: Malaspina Great Books - New Testament (c . 140 CE) Canon of the New Testament - Theology Series

Blog New Testament

by title by author

The New Testament, as defined by the Council of Trent, does not differ, as regards the books contained, from that of all Christian bodies at present. Like the Old Testament, the New has its deuterocanonical books and portions of books, their canonicity having formerly been a subject of some controversy in the Church. These are for the entire books: the Epistle to the Hebrews, that of James, the Second of St. Peter, the Second and Third of John, Jude, and Apocalypse; giving seven in all as the number of the New Testament contested books. The formerly disputed passages are three: the closing section of St. Mark's Gospel, xvi, 9-20 about the apparitions of Christ after the Resurrection; the verses in Luke about the bloody sweat of Jesus, xxii, 43, 44; the Pericope Adulterae, or narrative of the woman taken in adultery, St. John, vii, 53 to viii, 11. Since the Council of Trent it is not permitted for a Catholic to question the inspiration of these passages.


The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council.

1. The witness of the New Testament to itself: The first collections

Those writings which possessed the unmistakable stamp and guarantee of Apostolic origin must from the very first have been specially prized and venerated, and their copies eagerly sought by local Churches and individual Christians of means, in preference to the narratives and Logia, or Sayings of Christ, coming from less authorized sources. Already in the New Testament itself there is some evidence of a certain diffusion of canonical books: II Peter, iii, 15, 16, supposes its readers to be acquainted with some of St. Paul's Epistles; St. John's Gospel implicitly presupposes the existence of the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). There are no indications in the New Testament of a systematic plan for the distribution of the Apostolic compositions, any more than there is of a definite new Canon bequeathed by the Apostles to the Church, or of a strong self-witness to Divine inspiration. Nearly all the New Testament writings were evoked by particular occasions, or addressed to particular destinations. But we may well presume that each of the leading Churches--Antioch, Thessalonica, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome--sought by exchanging with other Christian communities to add to its special treasure, and have publicly read in its religious assemblies all Apostolic writings which came under its knowledge. It was doubtless in this way that the collections grew, and reached completeness within certain limits, but a considerable number of years must have elapsed (and that counting from the composition of the latest book) before all the widely separated Churches of early Christendom possessed the new sacred literature in full. And this want of an organized distribution, secondarily to the absence of an early fixation of the Canon, left room for variations and doubts which lasted far into the centuries. But evidence will presently be given that from days touching on those of the last Apostles there were two well defined bodies of sacred writings of the New Testament, which constituted the firm, irreducible, universal minimum, and the nucleus of its complete Canon: these were the Four Gospels, as the Church now has them, and thirteen Epistles of St. Paul--the Evangelium and the Apostolicum.

2. The principle of canonicity

Before entering into the historical proof for this primitive emergence of a compact, nucleative Canon, it is pertinent to briefly examine this problem: During the formative period what principle operated in the selection of the New Testament writings and their recognition as Divine?--Theologians are divided on this point. This view that Apostolicity was the test of the inspiration during the building up of the New Testament Canon, is favoured by the many instances where the early Fathers base the authority of a book on its Apostolic origin, and by the truth that the definitive placing of the contested books on the New Testament catalogue coincided with their general acceptance as of Apostolic authorship. Moreover, the advocates of this hypothesis point out that the Apostles' office corresponded with that of the Prophets of the Old Law, inferring that as inspiration was attached to the munus propheticum so the Apostles were aided by Divine inspiration whenever in the exercise of their calling they either spoke or wrote. Positive arguments are deduced from the New Testament to establish that a permanent prophetical charisma was enjoyed by the Apostles through a special indwelling of the Holy Ghost, beginning with Pentecost: Matth., x, 19, 20; Acts, xv, 28; I Cor., ii, 13; II Cor., xiii, 3; I Thess., ii, 13, are cited. The opponents of this theory allege against it that the Gospels of Mark and of Luke and Acts were not the work of Apostles (however, tradition connects the Second Gospel with St. Peter's preaching and St. Luke's with St. Paul's); that books current under an Apostle's name in the Early Church, such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the Apocalypse of St. Peter, were nevertheless excluded from canonical rank, while on the other hand Origen and St. Dionysius of Alexandria in the case of Apocalypse, and St. Jerome in the case of II and III John, although questioning the Apostolic authorship of these works, unhesitatingly received them as Sacred Scriptures. An objection of a speculative kind is derived from the very nature of inspiration ad scribendum, which seems to demand a specific impulse from the Holy Ghost in each case, and preclude the theory that it could be possessed as a permanent gift, or charisma. The weight of Catholic theological opinion is deservedly against mere Apostolicity as a sufficient criterion of inspiration. The adverse view has been taken by Franzelin (De Divina Traditione et Scriptura, 1882), Schmid (De Inspirationis Bibliorum Vi et Ratione, 1885), Crets (De Divina Bibliorum Inspiratione, 1886), Leitner (Die prophetische Inspiration, 1895--a monograph), Pesch (De Inspiratione Sacrae, 1906). These authors (some of whom treat the matter more speculatively than historically) admit that Apostolicity is a positive and partial touchstone of inspiration, but emphatically deny that it was exclusive, in the sense that all non-Apostolic works were by that very fact barred from the sacred Canon of the New Testament They hold to doctrinal tradition as the true criterion.

Catholic champions of Apostolicity as a criterion are: Ubaldi (Introductio in Sacram Scripturam, II, 1876); Schanz (in Theologische Quartalschrift, 1885, pp. 666 sqq., and A Christian Apology, II, tr. 1891); Szekely (Hermeneutica Biblica, 1902). Recently Professor Batiffol, while rejecting the claims of these latter advocates, has enunciated a theory regarding the principle that presided over the formation of the New Testament Canon which challenges attention and perhaps marks a new stage in the controversy. According to Monsignor Batiffol, the Gospel (i.e. the words and commandments of Jesus Christ) bore with it its own sacredness and authority from the very beginning. This Gospel was announced to the world at large, by the Apostles and Apostolic disciples of Christ, and this message, whether spoken or written, whether taking the form of an evangelic narrative or epistle, was holy and supreme by the fact of containing the Word of Our Lord. Accordingly, for the primitive Church, evangelical character was the test of Scriptural sacredness. But to guarantee this character it was necessary that a book should be known as composed by the official witnesses and organs of the Evangel; hence the need to certify the Apostolic authorship, or at least sanction, of a work purporting to contain the Gospel of Christ. In Batiffol's view the Judaic notion of inspiration did not at first enter into the selection of the Christian Scriptures. In fact, for the earliest Christians the Gospel of Christ, in the wide sense above noted, was not to be classified with, because transcending, the Old Testament It was not until about the middle of the second century that under the rubric of Scripture the New Testament writings were assimilated to the Old; the authority of the New Testament as the Word preceded and produced its authority as a New Scripture. (Revue Biblique, 1903, 226 sqq.) Monsignor Batiffol's hypothesis has this in common with the views of other recent students of the New Testament Canon, that the idea of a new body of sacred writings became clearer in the Early Church as the faithful advanced in a knowledge of the Faith. But it should be remembered that the inspired character of the New Testament is a Catholic dogma, and must therefore in some way have been revealed to, and taught by, Apostles.--Assuming that Apostolic authorship is a positive criterion of inspiration, two inspired Epistles of St. Paul have been lost. This appears from I Cor., v, 9, sqq.; II Cor., ii, 4, 5.

3. The formation of the Tetramorph, or Fourfold Gospel

Irenaeus, in his work "Against Heresies" (A.D. 182-88), testifies to the existence of a Tetramorph, or Quadriform Gospel, given by the Word and unified by one Spirit; to repudiate this Gospel or any part of it, as did the Alogi and Marcionites, was to sin against revelation and the Spirit of God. The saintly Doctor of Lyons explicitly states the names of the four Elements of this Gospel, and repeatedly cites all the Evangelists in a manner parallel to his citations from the Old Testament From the testimony of St. Irenaeus alone there can be no reasonable doubt that the Canon of the Gospel was inalterably fixed in the Catholic Church by the last quarter of the second century. Proofs might be multiplied that our canonical Gospels were then universally recognized in the Church, to the exclusion of any pretended Evangels. The magisterial statement of Irenaeus may be corroborated by the very ancient catalogue known as the Muratorian Canon, and St. Hippolytus, representing Roman tradition; by Tertullian in Africa, by Clement in Alexandria; the works of the Gnostic Valentinus, and the Syrian Tatian's Diatessaron, a blending together of the Evangelists' writings, presuppose the authority enjoyed by the fourfold Gospel towards the middle of the second century. To this period or a little earlier belongs the pseduo-Clementine epistle in which we find, for the first time after II Peter, iii, 16, the word Scripture applied to a New Testament book. But it is needless in the present article to array the full force of these and other witnesses, since even rationalistic scholars like Harnack admit the canonicity of the quadriform Gospel between the years 140-175.

But against Harnack we are able to trace the Tetramorph as a sacred collection back to a more remote period. The apocryphal Gospel of St. Peter, dating from about 150, is based on our canonical Evangelists. So with the very ancient Gospel of the Hebrews and Egyptians. St. Justin Martyr (130-63) in his Apology refers to certain "memoirs of the Apostles, which are called gospels", and which "are read in Christian assemblies together with the writings of the Prophets". The identity of these "memoirs" with our Gospels is established by the certain traces of three, if not all, of them scattered through St. Justin's works; it was not yet the age of explicit quotations. Marcion, the heretic refuted by Justin in a lost polemic, as we know from Tertullian, instituted a criticism of Gospels bearing the names of the Apostles and disciples of the Apostles, and a little earlier (c. 120) Basilides, the Alexandrian leader of a Gnostic sect, wrote a commentary on "the Gospel" which is known by the allusions to it in the Fathers to have comprised the writings of the Four Evangelists.

In our backward search we have come to the sub-Apostolic age, and its important witnesses are divided into Asian, Alexandrian, and Roman:
  • St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, and St. Polycarp, of Smyrna, had been disciples of Apostles; they wrote their epistles in the first decade of the second century (100-110). The employ Matthew, Luke, and John. In St. Ignatius we find the first instance of the consecrated term "it is written" applied to a Gospel (Ad Philad., viii, 2). Both these Fathers show not only a personal acquaintance with "the Gospel" and the thirteen Pauline Epistles, but they suppose that their readers are so familiar with them that it would be superfluous to name them. Papias, Bishop of Phrygian Hierapolis, according to Irenaeus a disciple of St. John, wrote about A.D. 125. Describing the origin of St. Mark's Gospel, he speaks of Hebrew (Aramaic) Logia, or Sayings of Christ, composed by St. Matthew, which there is reason to believe formed the basis of the canonical Gospel of that name, though the greater part of Catholic writers identify them with the Gospel. As we have only a few fragments of Papias, preserved by Eusebius, it cannot be alleged that he is silent about other parts of the New Testament.
  • The so-called Epistle of Barnabas, of uncertain origin, but of highest Antiquity, cites a passage from the First Gospel under the formula "it is written". The Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles, an uncanonical work dating from c. 110, implies that "the Gospel" was already a well-known and definite collection.
  • St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, and disciple of St. Paul, addressed his Letter to the Corinthian Church c. A.D. 97, and, although it cites no Evangelist explicitly, this epistle contains combinations of texts taken from the three synoptic Gospels, especially from St. Matthew. That Clement does not allude to the Fourth Gospel is quite natural, as it was not composed till about that time.
Thus the patristic testimonies have brought us step by step to a Divine inviolable fourfold Gospel existing in the closing years of the Apostolic Era. Just how the Tetramorph was welded into unity and given to the Church, is a matter of conjecture. But, as Zahn observes, there is good reason to believe that the tradition handed down by Papias, of the approval of St. Mark's Gospel by St. John the Evangelist, reveals that either the latter himself of a college of his disciples added the Fourth Gospel to the Synoptics, and made the group into the compact and unalterable "Gospel", the one in four, whose existence and authority left their clear impress upon all subsequent ecclesiastical literature, and find their conscious formulation in the language of Irenaeus.

4. The Pauline Epistles

Parallel to the chain of evidence we have traced for the canonical standing of the Gospels extends one for the thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, forming the other half of the irreducible kernel of the complete New Testament canon. All the authorities cited for the Gospel Canon show acquaintance with, and recognize, the sacred quality of these letters. St. Irenaeus, as acknowledged by the Harnackian critics, employs all the Pauline writings, except the short Philemon, as sacred and canonical. The Muratorian Canon, contemporary with Irenaeus, gives the complete list of the thirteen, which, it should be remembered, does not include Hebrews. The heretical Basilides and his disciples quote from this Pauline group in general. The copious extracts from Marcion's works scattered through Irenaeus and Tertullian show that he was acquainted with the thirteen as in ecclesiastical use, and selected his Apostolikon of six from them. The testimony of Polycarp and Ignatius is again capital in this case. Eight of St. Paul's writings are cited by Polycarp; St. Ignatius of Antioch ranked the Apostles above the Prophets, and must therefore have allowed the written compositions of the former at least an equal rank with those of the latter ("Ad Philadelphios", v). St. Clement of Rome refers to Corinthians as at the head "of the Evangel"; the Muratorian Canon gives the same honour to I Corinthians, so that we may rightfully draw the inference, with Dr. Zahn, that as early as Clement's day St. Paul's Epistles had been collected and formed into a group with a fixed order. Zahn has pointed out confirmatory signs of this in the manner in which Sts. Ignatius and Polycarp employ these Epistles. The tendency of the evidence is to establish the hypothesis that the important Church of Corinth was the first to form a complete collection of St. Paul's writings.

5. The remaining Books

In this formative period the Epistle to the Hebrews did not obtain a firm footing in the Canon of the Universal Church. At Rome it was not yet recognized as canonical, as shown by the Muratorian catalogue of Roman origin; Irenaeus probably cites it, but makes no reference to a Pauline origin. Yet it was known at Rome as early as St. Clement, as the latter's epistle attests. The Alexandrian Church admitted it as the work of St. Paul, and canonical. The Montanists favoured it, and the aptness with which vi, 4-8, lent itself to the Montanist and Novatianist rigour was doubtless one reason why it was suspect in the West. Also during this period the excess over the minimal Canon composed of the Gospels and thirteen epistles varied. The seven "Catholic" Epistles (James, Jude, I and II Peter, and the three of John) had not yet been brought into a special group, and, with the possible exception of the three of St. John, remained isolated units, depending for their canonical strength on variable circumstances. But towards the end of the second century the canonical minimum was enlarged and, besides the Gospels and Pauline Epistles, unalterably embraced Acts, I Peter, I John (to which II and III John were probably attached), and Apocalypse. Thus Hebrews, James, Jude, and II Peter remained hovering outside the precincts of universal canonicity, and the controversy about them and the subsequently disputed Apocalypse form the larger part of the remaining history of the Canon of the New Testament However, at the beginning of the third century the New Testament was formed in the sense that the content of its main divisions, what may be called its essence, was sharply defined and universally received, while all the secondary books were recognized in some Churches. A singular exception to the universality of the above-described substance of the New Testament was the Canon of the primitive East Syrian Church, which did not contain any of the Catholic Epistles or Apocalypse.

6. The idea of a New Testament

The question of the principle that dominated the practical canonization of the New Testament Scriptures has already been discussed under (b). The faithful must have had from the beginning some realization that in the writings of the Apostles and Evangelists they had acquired a new body of Divine Scriptures, a New written Testament destined to stand side by side with the Old. That the Gospel and Epistles were the written Word of God, was fully realized as soon as the fixed collections were formed; but to seize the relation of this new treasure to the old was possible only when the faithful acquired a better knowledge of the faith. In this connection Zahn observes with much truth that the rise of Montanism, with its false prophets, who claimed for their written productions--the self-styled Testament of the Paraclete--the authority of revelation, around the Christian Church to a fuller sense that the age of revelation had expired with the last of the Apostles, and that the circle of sacred Scripture is not extensible beyond the legacy of the Apostolic Era. Montanism began in 156; a generation later, in the works of Irenaeus, we discover the firmly-rooted idea of two Testaments, with the same Spirit operating in both. For Tertullian (c. 200) the body of the New Scripture is an instrumentum on at least an equal footing and in the same specific class as the instrumentum formed by the Law and the Prophets. Clement of Alexandria was the first to apply the word "Testament" to the sacred library of the New Dispensation. A kindred external influence is to be added to Montanism: the need of setting up a barrier, between the genuine inspired literature and the flood of pseudo-Apostolic apocrypha, gave an additional impulse to the idea of a New Testament Canon, and later contributed not a little to the demarcation of its fixed limits.


In this stage of the historical development of the Canon of the New Testament we encounter for the first time a consciousness reflected in certain ecclesiastical writers, of the differences between the sacred collections in divers sections of Christendom. This variation is witnessed to, and the discussion stimulated by, two of the most learned men of Christian Antiquity, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea, the ecclesiastical historian. A glance at the Canon as exhibited in the authorities of the African, or Carthaginian, Church, will complete our brief survey of this period of diversity and discussion:-

1. Origen and his school

Origen's travels gave him exception opportunities to know the traditions of widely separated portions of the Church and made him very conversant with the discrepant attitudes toward certain parts of the New Testament He divided books with Biblical claims into three classes:
  • those universally received;
  • those whose Apostolicity was questions;
  • apocryphal works.
In the first class, the Homologoumena, stood the Gospels, the thirteen Pauline Epistles, Acts, Apocalypse, I Peter, and I John. The contested writings were Hebrews, II Peter, II and III John, James, Jude, Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and probably the Gospel of the Hebrews. Personally, Origen accepted all of these as Divinely inspired, though viewing contrary opinions with toleration. Origen's authority seems to have given to Hebrews and the disputed Catholic Epistles a firm place in the Alexandrian Canon, their tenure there having been previously insecure, judging from the exegetical work of Clement, and the list in the Codex Claromontanus, which is assigned by competent scholars to an early Alexandrian origin.

2. Eusebius

Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, was one of Origen's most eminent disciples, a man of wide erudition. In imitation of his master he divided religious literature into three classes:
  • Homologoumena, or compositions universally received as sacred, the Four Gospels, thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, Hebrews, Acts, I Peter, I John, and Apocalypse. There is some inconsistency in his classification; for instance, though ranking Hebrews with the books of universal reception, he elsewhere admits it is disputed.
  • The second category is composed of the Antilegomena, or contested writings; these in turn are of the superior and inferior sort. The better ones are the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, II Peter, II and III John; these, like Origen, Eusebius wished to be admitted to the Canon, but was forced to record their uncertain status; the Antilegomena of the inferior sort were Barnabas, the Didache, Gospel of the Hebrews, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd, the Apocalypse of Peter.
  • All the rest are spurious (notha).
Eusebius diverged from his Alexandrian master in personally rejecting Apocalypse as an un-Biblical, though compelled to acknowledge its almost universal acceptance. Whence came this unfavourable view of the closing volume of the Christian Testament?--Zahn attributes it to the influence of Lucian of Samosata, one of the founders of the Antioch school of exegesis, and with whose disciples Eusebius had been associated. Lucian himself had acquired his education at Edessa, the metropolis of Eastern Syria, which had, as already remarked, a singularly curtailed Canon. Luician is known to have edited the Scriptures at Antioch, and is supposed to have introduced there the shorter New Testament which later St. John Chrysostom and his followers employed--one in which Apocalypse, II Peter, II and III John, and Jude had no place. It is known that Theodore of Mopsuestia rejected all the Catholic Epistles. In St. John Chrysostom's ample expositions of the Scriptures there is not a single clear trace of the Apocalypse, which he seems to implicitly exclude the four smaller Epistles--II Peter, II and III John, and Jude--from the number of the canonical books. Lucian, then, according to Zahn, would have compromised between the Syriac Canon and the Canon of Origen by admitting the three longer Catholic Epistles and keeping out Apocalypse. But after allowing fully for the prestige of the founder of the Antioch school, it is difficult to grant that his personal authority could have sufficed to strike such an important work as Apocalypse from the Canon of a notable Church, where it had previously been received. It is more probable that a reaction against the abuse of the Johannine Apocalypse by the Montanists and Chiliasts--Asia Minor being the nursery of both these errors--led to the elimination of a book whose authority had perhaps been previously suspected. Indeed it is quite reasonable to suppose that its early exclusion from the East Syrian Church was an outer wave of the extreme reactionist movement of the Aloges--also of Asia Minor--who branded Apocalypse and all the Johannine writings as the work of the heretic Cerinthus. Whatever may have been all the influences ruling the personal Canon of Eusebius, he chose Lucian's text for the fifty copies of the Bible which he furnished to the Church of Constantinople at the order of his imperial patron Constantine; and he incorporated all the Catholic Epistles, but excluded Apocalypse. The latter remained for more than a century banished from the sacred collections as current in Antioch and Constantinople. However, this book kept a minority of Asiatic suffrages, and, as both Lucian and Eusebius had been tainted with Arianism, the approbation of Apocalypse, opposed by them, finally came to be looked upon as a sign of orthodoxy. Eusebius was the first to call attention to important variations in the text of the Gospels, viz., the presence in some copies and the absence in others of the final paragraph of Mark, the passage of the Adulterous Woman, and the Bloody Sweat.

3. The African Church

St. Cyprian, whose Scriptural Canon certainly reflects the contents of the first Latin Bible, received all the books of the New Testament except Hebrews, II Peter, James, and Jude; however, there was already a strong inclination in his environment to admit II Peter as authentic. Jude had been recognized by Tertullian, but, strangely, it had lost its position in the African Church, probably owing to its citation of the apocryphal Henoch. Cyprian's testimony to the non-canonicity of Hebrews and James is confirmed by Commodian, another African writer of the period. A very important witness is the document known as Mommsen's Canon, a manuscript of the tenth century, but whose original has been ascertained to date from West Africa about the year 360. It is a formal catalogue of the sacred books, unmutilated in the New Testament portion, and proves that at its time the books universally acknowledged in the influential Church of Carthage were almost identical with those received by Cyprian a century before. Hebrews, James, and Jude are entirely wanting. The three Epistles of St. John and II Peter appear, but after each stands the note una sola, added by an almost contemporary hand, and evidently in protest against the reception of these Antilegomena, which, presumably, had found a place in the official list recently, but whose right to be there was seriously questioned.


1. St. Athanasius

While the influence of Athanasius on the Canon of the Old Testament was negative and exclusive, in that of the New Testament it was trenchantly constructive. In his "Epistola Festalis" (A.D. 367) the illustrious Bishop of Alexandria ranks all of Origen's New Testament Antilegomena, which are identical with the deuteros, boldly inside the Canon, without noticing any of the scruples about them. Thenceforward they were formally and firmly fixed in the Alexandrian Canon. And it is significant of the general trend of ecclesiastical authority that not only were works which formerly enjoyed high standing at broad-minded Alexandria--the Apocalypse of Peter and the Acts of Paul--involved by Athanasius with the apocrypha, but even some that Origen had regarded as inspired--Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache--were ruthlessly shut out under the same damnatory title.

2. The Roman Church, the Synod under Damasus, and St. Jerome

The Muratorian Canon or Fragment, composed in the Roman Church in the last quarter of the second century, is silent about Hebrews, James, II Peter; I Peter, indeed, is not mentioned, but must have been omitted by an oversight, since it was universally received at the time. There is evidence that this restricted Canon obtained not only in the African Church, with slight modifications, as we have seen, but also at Rome and in the West generally until the close of the fourth century. The same ancient authority witnesses to the very favourable and perhaps canonical standing enjoyed at Rome by the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas. In the middle decades of the fourth century the increased intercourse and exchange of views between the Orient and the Occident led to a better mutual acquaintance regarding Biblical canons and the correction of the catalogue of the Latin Church. It is a singular fact that while the East, mainly through St. Jerome's pen, exerted a disturbing and negative influence on Western opinion regarding the Old Testament, the same influence, through probably the same chief intermediary, made for the completeness and integrity of the New Testament Canon. The West began to realize that the ancient Apostolic Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch, indeed the whole Orient, for more than two centuries had acknowledged Hebrews and James as inspired writings of Apostles, while the venerable Alexandrian Church, supported by the prestige of Athanasius, and the powerful Patriarchate of Constantinople, with the scholarship of Eusebius behind its judgment, had canonized all the disputed Epistles. St. Jerome, a rising light in the Church, though but a simple priest, was summoned by Pope Damasus from the East, where he was pursuing sacred lore, to assist at an eclectic, but not ecumenical, synod at Rome in the year 382. Neither the general council at Constantinople of the preceding year nor that of Nice (365) had considered the question of the Canon. This Roman synod must have devoted itself specially to the matter. The result of its deliberations, presided over, no doubt, by the energetic Damasus himself, has been preserved in the document called "Decretum Gelasii de recipiendis et non recipiendis libris", a compilation partly of the sixth century, but containing much material dating from the two preceding ones. The Damasan catalogue presents the complete and perfect Canon which has been that of the Church Universal ever since. The New Testament portion bears the marks of Jerome's views. St. Jerome, always prepossessed in favour of Oriental positions in matters Biblical, exerted then a happy influence in regard to the New Testament; if he attempted to place any Eastern restriction upon the Canon of the Old Testament his effort failed of any effect. The title of the decree--"Nunc vero de scripturis divinis agendum est quid universalis Catholica recipiat ecclesia, et quid vitare debeat"--proves that the council drew up a list of apocryphal as well as authentic Scriptures. The Shepherd and the false Apocalypse of Peter now received their final blow. "Rome had spoken, and the nations of the West had heard" (Zahn). The works of the Latin Fathers of the period--Jerome, Hilary of Poitiers, Lucifer of Sardina, Philaster of Brescia--manifest the changed attitude toward Hebrews, James, Jude, II Peter, and III John.

3. Fixation in the African and Gallican Churches

It was some little time before the African Church perfectly adjusted its New Testament to the Damasan Canon. Optatus of Mileve (370-85) does not used Hebrews. St. Augustine, while himself receiving the integral Canon, acknowledged that many contested this Epistle. But in the Synod of Hippo (393) the great Doctor's view prevailed, and the correct Canon was adopted. However, it is evident that it found many opponents in Africa, since three councils there at brief intervals--Hippo, Carthage, in 393; Third of Carthage in 397; Carthage in 419--found it necessary to formulate catalogues. The introduction of Hebrews was an especial crux, and a reflection of this is found in the first Carthage list, where the much vexed Epistle, though styled of St. Paul, is still numbered separately from the time-consecrated group of thirteen. The catalogues of Hippo and Carthage are identical with the Catholic Canon of the present. In Gaul some doubts lingered for a time, as we find Pope Innocent I, in 405, sending a list of the Sacred Books to one of its bishops, Exsuperius of Toulouse.

So at the close of the first decade of the fifth century the entire Western Church was in possession of the full Canon of the New Testament In the East, where, with the exception of the Edessene Syrian Church, approximate completeness had long obtained without the aid of formal enactments, opinions were still somewhat divided on the Apocalypse. But for the Catholic Church as a whole the content of the New Testament was definitely fixed, and the discussion closed.

The final process of this Canon's development had been twofold: positive, in the permanent consecration of several writings which had long hovered on the line between canonical and apocryphal; and negative, by the definite elimination of certain privileged apocrypha that had enjoyed here and there a canonical or quasi-canonical standing. In the reception of the disputed books a growing conviction of Apostolic authorship had much to do, but the ultimate criterion had been their recognition as inspired by a great and ancient division of the Catholic Church. Thus, like Origen, St. Jerome adduces the testimony of the ancients and ecclesiastical usage in pleading the cause of the Epistle to the Hebrews (De Viris Illustribus, lix). There is no sign that the Western Church ever positively repudiated any of the New Testament deuteros; not admitted from the beginning, these had slowly advanced towards a complete acceptance there. On the other hand, the apparently formal exclusion of Apocalypse from the sacred catalogue of certain Greek Churches was a transient phase, and supposes its primitive reception. Greek Christianity everywhere, from about the beginning of the sixth century, practically had a complete and pure New Testament Canon.


1. To the Protestant Reformation

The New Testament in its canonical aspect has little history between the first years of the fifth and the early part of the sixteenth century. As was natural in ages when ecclesiastical authority had not reached its modern centralization, there were sporadic divergences from the common teaching and tradition. There was no diffused contestation of any book, but here and there attempts by individuals to add something to the received collection. In several ancient Latin manuscripts the spurious Epistle to the Laodiceans is found among the canonical letters, and, in a few instances, the apocryphal III Corinthians. The last trace of any Western contradiction within the Church to the Canon of the New Testament reveals a curious transplantation of Oriental doubts concerning the Apocalypse. An act of the Synod of Toledo, held in 633, states that many contest the authority of that book, and orders it to be read in the churches under pain of excommunication. The opposition in all probability came from the Visigoths, who had recently been converted from Arianism. The Gothic Bible had been made under Oriental auspices at a time when there was still much hostility to Apocalypse in the East.

2. The New Testament and the Council of Trent (1546)

This ecumenical synod had to defend the integrity of the New Testament as well as the Old against the attacks of the pseudo-Reformers, Luther, basing his action on dogmatic reasons and the judgment of Antiquity, had discarded Hebrews, James, Jude, and Apocalypse as altogether uncanonical. Zwingli could not see in Apocalypse a Biblical book. (OEcolampadius placed James, Jude, II Peter, II and III John in an inferior rank. Even a few Catholic scholars of the Renaissance type, notably Erasmus and Cajetan, had thrown some doubts on the canonicity of the above-mentioned Antilegomena. As to whole books, the Protestant doubts were the only ones the Fathers of Trent took cognizance of; there was not the slightest hesitation regarding the authority of any entire document. But the deuterocanonical parts gave the council some concern, viz., the last twelve verses of Mark, the passage about the Bloody Sweat in Luke, and the Pericope Adulterae in John. Cardinal Cajetan had approvingly quoted an unfavourable comment of St. Jerome regarding Mark, xvi, 9-20; Erasmus had rejected the section on the Adulterous Woman as unauthentic. Still, even concerning these no doubt of authenticity was expressed at Trent; the only question was as to the manner of their reception. In the end these portions were received, like the deuterocanonical books, without the slightest distinction. And the clause "cum omnibus suis partibus" regards especially these portions.

The Tridentine decree defining the Canon affirms the authenticity of the books to which proper names are attached, without however including this in the definition. The order of books follows that of the Bull of Eugenius IV (Council of Florence), except that Acts was moved from a place before Apocalypse to its present position, and Hebrews put at the end of St. Paul's Epistles. The Tridentine order has been retained in the official Vulgate and vernacular Catholic Bibles. The same is to be said of the titles, which as a rule are traditional ones, taken from the Canons of Florence and Carthage. (For the bearing of the Vatican Council on the New Testament, see Part II above.)

3. The New Testament Canon outside the Church

The Orthodox Russian and other branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church have a New Testament identical with the Catholic. In Syria the Nestorians possess a Canon almost identical with the final one of the ancient East Syrians; they exclude the four smaller Catholic Epistles and Apocalypse. The Monophysites receive all the book. The Armenians have one apocryphal letter to the Corinthians and two from the same. The Coptic-Arabic Church include with the canonical Scriptures the Apostolic Constitutions and the Clementine Epistles. The Ethiopic New Testament also contains the so-called "Apostolic Constitutions".

As for Protestantism, the Anglicans and Calvinists always kept the entire New Testament But for over a century the followers of Luther excluded Hebrews, James, Jude, and Apocalypse, and even went further than their master by rejecting the three remaining deuterocanonicals, II Peter, II and III John. The trend of the seventeenth century Lutheran theologians was to class all these writings as of doubtful, or at least inferior, authority. But gradually the German Protestants familiarized themselves with the idea that the difference between the contested books of the New Testament and the rest was one of degree of certainty as to origin rather than of instrinsic character. The full recognition of these books by the Calvinists and Anglicans made it much more difficult for the Lutherans to exclude the New Testament deuteros than those of the Old. One of their writers of the seventeenth century allowed only a theoretic difference between the two classes, and in 1700 Bossuet could say that all Catholics and Protestants agreed on the New Testament Canon. The only trace of opposition now remaining in German Protestant Bibles is in the order, Hebrews, coming with James, Jude, and Apocalypse at the end; the first not being included with the Pauline writings, while James and Jude are not ranked with the Catholic Epistles.

4. The criterion of inspiration (less correctly known as the criterion of canonicity)

Even those Catholic theologians who defend Apostolicity as a test for the inspiration of the New Testament (see above) admit that it is not exclusive of another criterion, viz., Catholic tradition as manifested in the universal reception of compositions as Divinely inspired, or the ordinary teaching of the Church, or the infallible pronouncements of ecumenical councils. This external guarantee is the sufficient, universal, and ordinary proof of inspiration. The unique quality of the Sacred Books is a revealed dogma. Moreover, by its very nature inspiration eludes human observation and is not self-evident, being essentially superphysical and supernatural. Its sole absolute criterion, therefore, is the Holy inspiring Spirit, witnessing decisively to Itself, not in the subjective experience of individual souls, as Calvin maintained, neither in the doctrinal and spiritual tenor of Holy Writ itself, according to Luther, but through the constituted organ and custodian of Its revelations, the Church. All other evidences fall short of the certainty and finality necessary to compel the absolute assent of faith. [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)]

Malaspina Literature Database

The Great Books: The New Testament

Please browse our Amazon list of titles about The New Testament. For rare and hard to find works we recommend our Alibris list of titles about The New Testament. Post Comments, Questions or Suggestions! This database is maintained by Malaspina Great Books.

Great Books Online: Amazon Search
In Association with Amazon.com
Biographical & Documentary Video Research
Enter title or keyword above
Malaspina Great Books Lecture Series

Jesus of Nazareth

Powerpoint Presentation: Christianity
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]

1. Introduction

I will argue that the book of Matthew with its companion gospels offer a new and radical idea -- radical not so much in content, as in the example and attitude of their central figure, and especially in the idea of faith. In parallel with this idea of radicalism I will also argue - paradoxically - that the movement inspired by Jesus -- the grand belief system called Christianity -- was neither radical nor new. This system -- which begins in the theology of Paul, was rather a synthesis of old ideas -- a grand synthesis and as such it can be seen as the last great gasp of antiquity -- the final contribution of the dying Greek mind.

Part of the enduring success of Christianity is due to this synthesis. In fact, Christianity -- much like Buddhism - became a full-fledged philosophical system, as well as a religion. It's a system with a small canonical set of core texts -- the gospels -- and an enormous body of secondary literature developed in large measure with the ethical perspectives developed using tools of reason developed in Greece by Plato and Aristotle, and a formidable army of their intellectual heirs -- know today as the "Church Fathers."

Participation as a religious Christian does not require reason. Philosophical Christianity of course does. There are Christians who are zealously Christian and totally non-philosophical. There are philosophical Christians who are completely non-religious. And there are those who are both -- occasionally in unusual ways.

One of the more zealous philosophic Christians I know of is a man named Hans Kung -- a Catholic theologian. I would regard Kung as an intensely religious Christian -- but his religiosity is unusual. He does not believe in the virgin birth; he does not believe that Christ performed miracles; he does not believe in the divinity of Christ; yet, he is profoundly Christian -- but has been forbidden by his Church to proclaim his beliefs. Like Socrates Hans Kung abides by the law and remains within the fold.

1a. Faith

One of the reasons for these strange dichotomies is the introduction into the Christian system of a sophisticated and new epistemological artifact -- a mysterious device called "Faith." I spell it with a capital "F" to differentiate it from the more casual use of the term -- as blind faith. Faith offered promise of certain grounding knowledge of fundamental truths. Faith was in the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 11:25 available to anyone -- especially the humble: I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the clever and revealing them to mere children.

This I think is one key to the universality of Christian belief. Jesus claims knowledge of certain truth was accessible to anyone with the right "attitude." Jesus himself said that understanding of the parables required faith. In Matt 13:14: The reason I speak to you in parables is that they [those with no faith] look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. Earlier in 13:35: I will speak to you in parables and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.

That is a spectacular carrot! Faith brings certainty to all who accept it -- with faith even a child -- especially a child -- can, in effect, shoot through Plato's divided line -- come to know the good -- without resort to dialectic or reason -- without the hard intellectual work that the Greek philosophical systems demanded.

Some elitist intellectuals find this abhorrent. Faith implies or seems to imply uncritical belief -- an irrational acceptance of something inaccessible to normal rational process. Why is this so intellectually unsatisfying? It should be clear to all of us by now. We had just finished a semester buried in intellectual inquiry. Its apex was seen in the Republic. We do not need faith in the Republic to understand that "justice" is the best course of action. We saw that justice was "right" because we figured it out for ourselves - or at least Plato did through his process of dialectic. This gives him and us a "rational" basis for moral decisions. Just action is right action because we move forward. We become better. It is in our interest. It is in the best interest of the city. It is in the best interest of the soul. We become more wise. We shake off -- in Socrates language -- the phantoms and shadows that masquerade and enslave us. Justice breaks the chains that bind -- we become truly free. All of these benefits emerge from a difficult rational and intellectual exercise.

In Romans 5, Paul provides the intellectual and theological justification for this faith mechanism -- gives it authenticity if you will - in describing how the mechanism works. Faith brings something called "grace," which comes to man through the living Christ. Grace - really a sure awareness of God - is a free gift of God. Grace was made available to man through the sacrifice of his son - a sacrifice made to atone for the fall of man.

You or I do not of course have to accept the elements of the idea of faith. But the idea is central both to the radicalism of Jesus and the later theology of Paul. But, what Paul offers here, in his letter to the Romans, is a reasoned argument for this system and how faith works. Because Paul grounds the justification of faith on argument, the doctrine begins to accrete certain intellectual appeal. It attracts an intellectual crowd: people like T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis -- to name a few moderns. Because the argument also suggests a reward -- knowledge of things hidden since the foundation of the world, -- there is an impulse to check it out -- to experiment -- to see if it works.

The implication of the claim is that the "knowledge" obtained from faith is no worse than, perhaps better than, the knowledge that emerges from an intellectual process. There's another critical point we need to appreciate in reading and attempting to understand this text. This "knowledge" is not automatic. God offers it through something called "grace." Grace is something we are free to accept or to reject. If we accept the freely given gift of grace, "F"aith follows. Christ touches on this in Matt 13:15. Those who refuse the gift of grace listen but do not hear, see but do not perceive.

The idea of faith is powerful -- even amongst non-believers. I want to quote the Jewish scholar Schlom Ben-Chorin writing about the person of Jesus the Jew but from a jewish perspective. I feel his brotherly hand which grasps mine, so that I can follow him ... it is not the hand of the messiah, this hand marked with scars. It is certainly not divine, but a human hand in the lines of which is engraved the most projound suffering ... the faith of Jesus unites us, but faith in Jesus divides us …

2. What was so radical?

It is ironic that the Jesus of Matthew put forward no new system of morality. He accepts the Law -- both worldly and Judaic -- but he saw the world as a bridge -- cross it, do not build your house upon it. The only important thing is the kingdom of God -- a kingdom that Jesus believed - wrongly - was immediately at hand. The ethical requirements Jesus demands for entering this kingdom are uncompromising - and really impossible - without faith. It was no longer enough to abide externally by the Law. It was necessary now to enter into the soul. You had to obey the "will" of God. And the will of God was to love God and neighbor. The most radical aspect of the love ethic and this was new was Jesus commandment to, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that use you.

Along these same lines the Sermon on the Mount is often presented as a paradigm of Christian radicalism: How happy are the poor in spirit;
theirs is the kingdom of heaven,
Happy the gentle,
they shall have the earth for their heritage.
Happy those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right:
they shall be satisfied.
Happy the merciful,
they shall have mercy shown them.
Happy the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Happy the peacemakers:
they shall be called sons of God.
Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right:
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matt 5:3-10

Yet none of these ideas or attitudes is particularly new -- in fact, most of it was "the current money of the synagogue" in Jesus time.

Much the same can be said for the Lord's Prayer in Matt 6:8:

Our father in heaven,
may your name be held holy,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven,
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test,
but save us from the evil one.

An ancient Yiddish prayer from the temple period begins in a similar fashion:

Glorified and hallowed be his great name in the world, which he created according to his will.

In fact, here is not a single passage in the prayer that is without parallel in Jewish prayers known at that time.

The truly radical element that emerges from Matthew is in the essential idea of Jesus. The essence of this idea is freedom. Through faith, man can really become truly free. The attitude that emerges from this faith is transcendent. This independence from the world while immersed in the world is the source of Jesus' strangeness in the face of hostility and persecution: his utter serenity. This absolute faith enables him -- like Socrates -- to question everything in the world. Socrates had done that too, but unlike Socrates -- who questions because he knows he does NOT know. Jesus questions for different reasons and from the certain knowledge faith guarantees. This serenity faith brings means that nothing worldly has importance - death, suffering, persecution, and abuse, are meaningless. That's freedom! The only important task is to follow God into the kingdom of heaven. How radical is this? Here is what Hegel said: Never have words so revolutionary been spoken, for everything otherwise looked on as valid is represented as indifferent, unworthy of consideration.

This radicalism -- was in fact practiced by early Christians, but it was not universally admired. The Greek wit Lucian of Samosata satirizes this Christian ethos in his work Peregrinus written about 140 AD -- about a century after Christ's death:

These poor souls (the Christians) have persuaded themselves that they are immortal and will live forever. As a result, they think nothing of death, and most of them are perfectly willing to sacrifice themselves. Besides, their first law-give (Paul) has convinced them that once they stop believing in Greek gods, and start worshipping that crucified sage of theirs, and living according to his laws, they are all each other's brothers and sisters. So, taking this information on trust (meaning faith), without any guarantee of its truth, they think nothing else matters, and believe in common ownership -- which means that any unscrupulous adventurer who comes along can soon make a fortune out of them, for the silly creatures (the Christians) are very easily taken in!

3. Jesus the man

What sorts of influences likely affected this Jesus of Matthew ? Where did this radical ethic come from? According to tradition Jesus (named Joshua at birth -- a name than became Latinized as Jesus) came from a large family -- there were five brothers and an unknown number of sisters. Jesus would have had no formal education but would have attended synagogue where he would have learned of the prophets, Psalms, Daniel and Enoch, and learned of the idea of the Messiah, the Last Judgment and the coming Kingdom

In their annual journey to Jerusalem -- a pilgrimage made by all good Jews at that time -- Jesus would certainly have learned of and been influenced by the ideas of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes -- who practiced an ethos influenced in part by Buddistic ideas. Jesus likely knew too of a group called the Nazarenes -- a sect that rejected temple worship and denied the binding character of the law.

But the experience that would have affected Jesus would have been the teaching of John the Baptist -- undeniably a real historical figure whose life was chronicled in some detail by the Jewish historian Josephus. The elements of John's teaching that likely consumed Jesus were his notions of hypocrisy, the last judgment and the idea that if Judea was cleaned of sin, the Messiah and the Kingdom would come. If we accept tradition, the historical ministry of Jesus began with John's imprisonment.

What was Jesus like? Unlike John the Baptist, the Jesus of Matthew is NOT an ascetic. He provides wine for a marriage feast. He lives with sinners. He associates with women -- of low and high repute. He attends banquets in the homes of the rich. Generally he moves amongst the poor and the untouchables. The character described in Matthew is not an intellectual. Jesus is no Socrates. Yet, he is not without intellect. He answers tricky questions from the Pharisees with the skill of a lawyer. His great skill lies however in a keen perception -- intensity of feeling and singleness of purpose.

The Jesus of Matthew taught with a simplicity required by his audience -- using stories and metaphors in the form of parables common in the east . He does not use argument. The force of his teaching was directed towards an internal reordering of priorities -- a proper attitude of soul -- reminiscent for me of the call to Justice in soul offered by Plato through Socrates in the Republic. Jesus ordering of soul is based -- like the Republic -- on the cultivation of virtues. These were not the virtues of Plato: courage, moderation and wisdom. In Jesus the virtues were humility, poverty, gentleness, and peace. The Jesus of Matthew would certainly have met hostile and understandable opposition. Jews of all sects -- except perhaps the Essenes -- would have opposed his teaching. He repeatedly called the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites. He would have been suspect for legitimate reasons: his apparent assumption of the authority to forgive sin; his association with the hated employees of Rome; his association with women of low repute; and particularly for his outward behavior, seen by many as a cover for real political revolution -- a revolt by the poor against the rich. Authorities would also have been frightened by his promise to destroy the temple -- not quite sure it was only a metaphor.

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth Exist?

This is not a spurious question. A secular response to this question must remain equivocal. Aside from these New Testament accounts -- accounts written to solidify and bolster a new and growing movement, there are no independent historical records of the existence of the historical figure Matthew describes in his Gospel. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius who died around 100 AD does make two references to Jesus in his writings. One of those is clearly an interpolation -- an addition made by a copyist . The second reference -- the one many commentators feel is genuine, refers to the execution of a man named James in the year 62 AD. Here is the passage:

He (the governor) assembled the Sanhedren of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, him called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breaks of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

G.E. Wells wring in The Jesus Legend argues that Josephus probably wrote of the death of a Jerusalem personage called James, and a Christian reader thought he must have meant James the "brother of the Lord" who, according to Christian tradition, led the Jerusalem church about the time in question. This reader accordingly noted in the margin: 'James -- brother of Jesus, him called Christ', and a later copyist took this as belonging to the text and incorporated it. Other interpolations are known to have originated in precisely this way. It should be noted also that in Josephus' entire corpus the term "the Christ" occurs only in these two suspect passages, with no attempt to explain it to his readers.

The Jewish rabbinical literature also makes no references to an historical Jesus before the second century -- well after the gospel accounts had represented Jesus as a teacher and wonder worker. And Paul, whose epistles were written as early as 30 years after Christ's death, makes no reference to the sayings of Christ contained in the Gospels -- the primary source of much of what we know about the historical figure. None of this disproves the historical Jesus. The existence of many figures from antiquity -- who few would deny as real -- are evidenced by flimsier sources. The earliest material we have for example on Sophocles -- the author of Oedipus -- is a manuscript dating from the 8th century AD -- 1,400 years after his death.

As far as the gospels themselves are concerned there is general agreement that all four were written well after the historical events they describe. Mark's gospel was written first about 70 AD. Matthew and Luke were written independently probably around 90 AD. Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources and a second now lost "gospel" biblical scholars have named "Q." John's Gospel -- different in character to the first three -- was written later.

Given that Matthew and Luke wrote without reference to each other, but that both used Q as a source, an interesting picture of Jesus emerges from attempts to reconstruct the lost Gospel Q. The Jesus of Q is not a messiah. He was not born of a virgin. He did not perform miracles. He did not die on the cross. There was no resurrection.

What remains nonetheless is an extraordinary character -- the basic radical elements of the ethos I described above -- and an intriguing figure who made a lasting impression on his followers, believed in an immediate Kingdom, and saw himself as a successor to John the Baptist. What this means is that the gospel we have here may contain embellishments -- embellishments designed to bolster the fortunes of a struggling movement during an extraordinarily competitive period.

Embellishments and obvious contradictions notwithstanding, the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Luke and Mark, do agree in essentials and do paint a rather consistent portrait of Christ. There are elements in the stories that would not have been fabricated for a completely mythological figure. These include the flight after Jesus arrest; Peter's denial; Christ's inability to work miracles in Galilee; his early uncertainty as to his mission; his confessions to ignorance of the future; his moments of bitterness; his cry on the cross. It stretches the imagination that so appealing a figure could be created by a few simple men in a single generation.

It should also be understood that some of the embellishments in the gospels be seen in the light of the times. It was a time when Jews were waiting anxiously for a Redeemer. It was a time too when magic, witchcraft, demons, angels, possessions and exorcisms were generally taken for granted -- as were miracles, prophesies, divinations and astrology. In that context the miracles ascribed to Jesus, although wrongly interpreted, are not beyond belief -- water walking and bread making notwithstanding.

Jesus himself attributed his miracles to faith. The symptoms of people with nervous disorders were alleviated in his presence. The little girl he raised from the dead was not dead. Jesus said so himself. Little girl, arise! Jesus experienced psychic exhaustion after his miracles -- was reluctant to accept them and attributed his powers to a divine spirit that came from within. He also advised his followers not to advertise his powers and did not want his followers to accept him because of his "wonders." It seems though that Jesus -- the Jesus of Matthew -- displayed a growing conviction that he was the Messiah and not just the successor to John the Baptist. This belief can no doubt be attributed to the growing adulation of his followers and his apparent "powers,"

Christ's death and "resurrection" present interesting problems for historical arguments. As I mentioned earlier, the entire passion story may have been a fabrication. There is however one other intriguing possibility. According to the traditions captured in the gospels, the man crucified on Calvary on that day in 30 AD -- if indeed a man was crucified on that day -- was on the cross for only six hours. Standard procedure in crucifixions administered by the Roman authorities involved much longer times. Christ's legs were not broken -- again a common procedure. The story of the spear in the side may have been an interpolation. Death in such circumstances would come normally after several days. Was the Christ of Matthew removed from the cross still alive? The discovery of the empty tomb by the two Mary's as described in Matthew points to authenticity at least in that part of the story. Women in Judea in this era were not accepted as credible witnesses. Why, if this part of the tradition was a fabrication, did the gospel accounts use women to discover the missing Christ?

If there was an historical Jesus, and I am inclined to believe there was, that figure may have acquired mythological traits. What he did, how he lived, and what he said, may have been sweetened to suit the purposes of the original gospel writers. This is not unusual. Great sayings tend to attach to great figures -- whether they were the originators or not. Jesus may not have said all he was purported to have said. One example of this may be the so-called golden rule in Matt: 7:12: So always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets." This same saying is found in the literature of Buddhism and Islam as well as the wisdom literature of Greece and Rome -- in Herodotus and Seneca. In its negative form, what is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbour, the rule is ascribed to the Jewish sage Hillel, who died around the year 10 AD. In story telling in oral cultures the practice of adding the name of an important sage to a particular saying enhances the credibility and believability of the idea.

5. The Christian Synthesis

I have presented here what seem to be contradictory positions on the Jesus of Matthew. Does Matthew's Jesus offer a radical new message? Or is the Jesus of Matthew a myth spun from the web of older Jewish and Greek and Eastern ideas?

Or -- and this is perhaps an even more controversial position -- one that subsumes both of the above and argues that the belief system created in his name became the last great creations of the dying Greek mind.

Except for the core radicalism of the historical Christ, most of the elements of Christianity as it solidified into a system during the first centuries after Christ are really very old. What was new was the synthesis of currents of religion and philosophy from Greece, Judea, Persia, and the East.

The synthesis began with Paul -- the founder of Christian theology. It was through Paul -- a Jew and Pharisee raised in Tarsus -- that Stoic and mystic elements began to enter Christian thinking. Paul's fusion was essentially a melding of Greek metaphysics and Hebrew ethics.

In his early travels Paul once visited Athens, that familiar hotbed of Greek philosophy. His attempt to influence the Athenian citizenry was a complete failure. -- the Greeks there had probably heard too many ideas to be influenced by yet another attempt to transform their now jaded world views. Paul had better luck in Corinth.

It was there that Paul was able to begin the process of transforming Greek tradition into a Christian literature and ritual. The fusion that matured as Christianity involved assimilations from other sources too. From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity, the Last Judgment; the adoration of mother and child; and the mystic theosophy. From Phyrigia came worship of the Great Mother; from Syria the resurrection drama of Adonis; from Thrace, the cult of Dionysus, the dying and saving god; from Persia the Mithraic rituals that closely resemble the eucharistic sacrifice of the mass.

The Mithraic system deserves special attention.

According to Persian traditions, the god Mithras was actually incarnated into the human form of the Saviour expected by Zarathustra or Zoroaster. Mithras was born of Anahita, an immaculate virgin mother once worshipped as a fertility goddess. Mithra's ascension to heaven was said to have occurred in 208 B.C., 64 years after his birth.

The God remained celibate throughout his life, and valued self-control, renunciation and resistance to sensuality among his worshippers. Mithras represented a system of ethics in which brotherhood was encouraged in order to unify against the forces of evil.

The faithful referred to Mithras as "the Light of the World", symbol of truth, justice, and loyalty. He was mediator between heaven and earth and was a member of a Holy Trinity.

The worshippers of Mithras held strong beliefs in a celestial heaven and an infernal hell. They believed that the benevolent powers of the god would sympathize with their suffering and grant them the final justice of immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. They looked forward to a final day of judgment in which the dead would resurrect, and to a final conflict that would destroy the existing order of all things to bring about the triumph of light over darkness.

Purification through a ritualistic baptism was required of the faithful, who also took part in a ceremony in which they drank wine and ate bread to symbolize the body and blood of the god. Sundays were held sacred, and the birth of the god was celebrated annually on December the 25th. After the earthly mission of this god had been accomplished, he took part in a Last Supper with his companions before ascending to heaven, to forever protect the faithful from above.

Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected. Several classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were also said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father.

What Christianity offered -- in its first centuries at least -- was an amalgam of traditions and ideas with mystical, emotional and intellectual elements. Graft onto that mix the Roman capacity for organization and control and central authority -- as the newly emerging movement did within its first few centuries -- and you begin to see some of the reasons for its enduring and continuing success.

6. Meaning

But the success of what? Through all of this analysis -- these comparisons to pre-Christian systems -- one thing remains standing -- the Jesus of Matthew -- that strange serene radical with his impossible demands. In spite of all that has been said the figure remains appealing. Why?

I'm quoting existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers:

Because Jesus stands at the end and margin of the world, in an exceptional situation, he reveals the possibility and hope implicit in all those who are despised according to the standards of the world, the lowly, the sick, the deformed; ... Both his actions and his words seem contradictory by the standards of reason: on the one hand, struggle, hardness, the ruthless alternative; on the other infinite mildness, nonresistence, compassion. He is the challenging warrior and the silent sufferer....The authenticity of Jesus' suffering is historically unique. The pain and terror are not accepted with resignation or borne with patience; they are not veiled; "My God, My God why has thou forsaken me?" Jesus insists on the reality of suffering and expresses it. When, forlorn and forsaken he is nearly dead with suffering, the minimum of ground he has to stand on becomes all and everything, the Godhead. Silent, invisible, unimaginable, it is after all the sole reality. The utter realism with which the uncloaked horrors of this existence are portrayed implies that help can only come from the utterly intangible.

Let me end with a comment from the radical Catholic Theologian Hans Kung -- While Kung rejects most traditional Christian elements -- virgin birth, miracles and so on, he comes down firmly on the side of the historical Jesus. He summarizes the essential importance of the Jesus of history as follows:

Looking to the crucified and living Christ, even in the world of today, we are able not only to act but also to suffer, not only to live but also to die. And even when pure reason breaks down, even in pointless misery and sin, we perceive meaning, because we know that because here too in both positive and negative experience we are sustained. Faith in Jesus the Christ gives peace with God and with self, but does not play down the problems of the world. It makes us truly and radically human -- open to the very end for the other person, the one who needs us here and now -- our neighbour.

7. Jesus, Socrates, Buddha

Jesus impact on global thinking has been enormous -- so too have the lives of other essential paradigmatic individuals. I would like finally to offer a few short concluding comparisons developed by Karl Jaspers between Jesus and Socrates, and Jesus and the Buddha.

Jesus' message is part of a history wrought by God. Those who go with Jesus are caught up in a passion that has its source in the moment of the most critical decision. Buddha proclaimed his doctrine in aimless wanderings, in aristocratic serenity, without insistence, indifferent to a world that is forever the same. Jesus builds on the Old Testament, Buddha on Hindu philosophy. Jesus demands faith, Buddha demands insight.

Jesus teaches by proclaiming glad tidings, Socrates by compelling us to think. Jesus demands faith, Socrates an exchange of thought. Jesus speaks with direct earnestness, Socrates indirectly, even by irony. Jesus knows of the kingdom of heaven and eternal life, Socrates has no definite knowledge of these matters and leaves the question open. But neither will let us rest. Jesus proclaims the only way; Socrates leaves man free, but keeps reminding us of our responsibility rooted in freedom. Both raise supreme claims. Jesus confers salvation. Socrates provokes us to search for it.


1. The Jerusalem Bible, Gospel According to Matthew, Doubleday
2. The Jerusalem Bible, Letter to the Romans, Doubleday
3. Wells, G.A., The Jesus Legend, Open Court, 1996
4. Jaspers, K, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1985
5. Kung, Hans, On Being a Christian, Fount Paperback, 1974
6. Durant, Will & Ariel, Caesar and Christ, History of Civilization (Vol. 3), 1994

- end -

Malaspina Great Books Lecture Series

The Idea of Faith

Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]

I want to quote a Jewish Scholar Schlom Ben-Chorin writing about the person of Jesus the Jew from a Jewish perspective: "I feel his brotherly hand which grasps mine, so that I can follow him." ... "It is not the hand of the messiah, this hand marked with scars. It is certainly not a divine, but a human hand in the lines of which is engraved the most profound suffering...The faith OF Jesus unites us, but faith IN Jesus divides us."

What happens when we strip away the paint. Set aside the mythology. Ignore the miracles and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. What remains?

What remains is a strange figure. As Ben-Chorin confides--a brother human who is difficult to ignore on the basis of his faith alone. Like Ben-Chorin you do not need to have faith IN Jesus Christ to recognize that the faith OF Jesus Christ was profound.

Many intellectuals find this abhorrent. Faith implies or seems to imply uncritical belief--an irrational acceptance of something inaccessible to normal rational process.

This abhorrence emerges in part because Paul claims, in Romans 3:22, that justice--there's that word again--justice--comes to us--not through the proper apportionment and non-interference of the "parts of soul," as Socrates taught us last semester. Justice comes to us rather through faith.

Why is this so intellectually unsatisfying? Is should be clear to all of us by now. We have just spent a semester buried in intellectual inquiry. It's apex was seen in the Republic.

We did not need faith in the Republic to understand that "justice" is the best course of action. We saw that justice was right because we figured it out for ourselves--or at least Plato did through his process of dialectic. This gave him and us a "rational" basis for moral decisions. Just action is right action because we move forward. We become better. It is in our interest. It is in the interest of the city. It is in the interest of the soul. We become more wise. We shake off--in Socrates language--"the phantoms and shadows that masquerade and enslave us." Justice breaks the chains that bind--we become truly free. We become liberated. We also--as Socrates argued-- become immortal! It means we become lovers of wisdom.

These benefits emerge from a difficult rational and intellectual exercise.

Here, as I read it, Paul claims that the same benefits--in other words, knowing the "right thing to do," shaking off the phantoms that enslave--as Socrates would put it--are freely available to anyone who has "faith."

Compare these two statements:

Socrates (Republic):

"Therefore, those who have no experience of prudence and virtue...don't look upward toward what is truly above; nor are they ever brought to it; and they aren't filled with what really is, nor do they taste of a pleasure that is sure and pure; rather, after the fashion of cattle, always looking down with their heads bent to earth and table, they feed, fattening themselves, and copulating; and, for the sake of getting more of these things, they kick and butt with horns and hoofs of iron, killing each other because they are insatiable; for they are not filling the part of themselves that is, or can contain anything, with things that are."

Now, from Romans 1:28:

"Since they refused to see it was rational to acknowledge God, God has left them to their own irrational ideas and monstrous behavior: depravity, rottenness, greed, malice, treachery, and spite."

Both commentaries here reflect a similar attitude towards "right" behavior. And, both, ironically, claim that right behavior proceeds from rational choice.

What then is so different about Paul, and why is there such intellectual resistance to Paul?

The reason should be clear. For Plato, the knowledge of truth emerges from a logical metaphysical argument--an intellectual process. For Paul, in Romans, knowledge of the truth does not come from a logical argument. It comes from faith.

What then is faith? It is, according to Paul in Romans 3:24, that which is given to man in return for his acceptance of the "free gift of his grace by being redeemed in Christ Jesus who was appointed by God to sacrifice his life so as to win reconciliation through faith."

There's a lot of theology packed into this statement. But the only point I want to make here is this: Faith-- according to Paul in Romans--and according to Christ in Matthew, is more than an "uncritical" acceptance of unchecked truth. The knowledge of truth that comes from faith is real. That's the claim. It is more than a "feeling," or an intuitive realization, or a sixth sense, or a biochemical response. That's the claim.

This "faith" experience that Paul and Matthew refer to may in fact be a biochemical or cult response to a charismatic leader. We can speculate about this. But, neither Paul nor Matthew nor Christ claim that. They claim it to be something more. Therefore, I argue that we should respect the "claim" even if we do not believe it to be true.

The implication of this claim is that the "knowledge" obtained from faith is no worse than, perhaps better than, the knowledge that emerges from an intellectual process. Again that's the claim.

There's another critical point we need to appreciate in reading and attempting to understand this text. This knowledge is not automatic. God offers grace-- that's free. But we are free to accept or reject this gift. If we accept it, we will have faith and knowledge. If we reject it, we do not have faith.

Christ touches on this in Matthew 13:15. Those who refuse the gift of grace will, "listen but not hear, see but not perceive."

However, the promise of faith is quite extensive: happiness, redemption, and a cohesive community.

So, where does all this leave us in a secular intellectually rooted academic community like ours?

I suggest that we recognize these claims for what they are.

Grace and faith--as concepts--seem distinct from anything above the famous divided line in Plato--and independent of the process Plato refers to as intellection.

Grace--if it exists--emanates from a place beyond the "good" or the philosopher's God, and streams down--through the divided line--and into the heart of the simplest man or woman: each of whom is completely free to accept of reject it as he or she wishes.

In a complex, and frankly mysterious universe, such as ours, leaving open the possibility that "ways of knowing" other than the intellectual exist, seem exciting. The "faith" that allegedly comes from the "grace" of a god, is simply one of those other possibilities. Acknowledging faith--at least the sort of faith described by Paul--does not diminish or alter our intellectual response or responsibility to the world.

Rejecting faith, on the other hand, and many of us do, should not alter our capacity to recognize the importance of this important and wonderfully symmetrical historical model of a possible relationship between humans and the creative force.

Best Choice
Books, Music, Art:
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament

Browse Books, Music, Art & Book Reviews:Books from Alibris: New Testament
Books from Amazon: New Testament
Audiobooks at iTunes: Thousands of Classics
Library Catalogs:COPAC UK: New Testament
Library of Canada: New Testament
Library of Congress: New Testament
Other Library Catalogs: New Testament
External Links:Research Links: New Testament
Malaspina Canada Links: New Testament
Online Research:
Records from Related Period and Category:Ancient Literature

this Database:
This web page is part of a biographical database on Great Ideas. These are living ideas that have shaped, defined and directed world culture for over 2,500 years. By definition the Great Ideas are radical. As such they are sometimes misread, or distorted by popular simplifications. Understanding a Great Idea demands personal engagement. Our selection of Great Ideas is drawn from literature and philosophy, science, art, music, theatre, and cinema. We also include biographies of pivotal historical and religious figures, as well as contributions from women and other historically under-represented minorities. The result is an integrated multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary database built upon the framework of the always controversial Great Books Core List published in 1940 by the late Great Books Pioneer Mortimer Adler (1902-2001). Most of the works on that list are available in the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.

Malaspina Great Ideas BlogMalaspina Great Ideas RSS Feed
Malaspina Global Portal On the web since 1995 Search by Period or Category The 267 Top Books of all time! Tell us what you think
Privacy Statement, Acknowledgements and ContactDictionary and Thesaurus

Return to Top of this Page