The Development of the Canon of the New Testament

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Early Christian Authorities

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

Irenaeus of Lyons (b. 120/140 Asia Minor - d. 200/203 CE)   

This image is taken from the Encyclopædia Britannica. A larger version is available.

Relatively little is known of the life of Irenaeus. As a boy he had, as he delighted to point out, listened to the sermons of the great bishop and martyr, Polycarp of Smyrna, who was regarded as a disciple of the apostles themselves. Here he came to know, 'the genuine unadulterated gospel', to which he remained faithful throughout his life. Perhaps he also accompanied Polycarp on his journey to Rome in connection with the controversy over the date of celebrating Easter (154 CE). Later he went as a missionary to southern Gaul, where he became a presbyter at Lyons. A Catholic Encyclopedia article is online at St. Irenaeus.

Irenaeus was absent from the city when the persecution there reached its zenith. It seems that he had been sent to Rome by the Gallican churches in order to confer with Pope Eleutherus, perhaps as a mediator in the Montanist disputes. Evidently Irenaeus stayed in Rome for just a short time, and soon after the end of the persecution we find him again in Lyons as the successor to Bishop Pothinus (178). When and how he died is unknown to us. Jerome and others state that he died as a martyr in the persecution under the Emperor Septimus Severus (202), but there is no certainty about this tradition.

In short, we know Irenaeus almost solely from his writings, and these have not been preserved in their entirety. These writings are:

    Writing Remarks English Translation(s)
    The Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called
    (also called Adversus Haereses)
    original Greek fragments and only a Latin translation in its entirety (written ~180 CE) [Richardson] , Christian Classics Ethereal Library , Noncanonical Homepage
    The Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching an Armenian translation discovered in 1907. This book was probably intended for the instruction of young candidates for Baptism. [Irenaeus]

The era in which Irenaeus lived was a time of expansion and inner tensions in the church. In many cases Irenaeus acted as mediator between various contending factions. The churches of Asia Minor (where he was probably born) continued to celebrate Easter on the same date (the 14th of Nisan) as the Jews celebrated Passover, whereas the Roman Church maintained that Easter should always be celebrated on a Sunday (the day of the Resurrection). Mediating between the parties, Irenaeus stated that differences in external factors, such as dates of festivals, need not be so serious as to destroy church unity.

Irenaeus adopted a totally negative and unresponsive attitude, however, toward Marcion, a schismatic leader in Rome, and toward the Valentinians, a fashionable intellectual Gnostic movement in the rapidly expanding church that espoused dualism. Because Gnosticism was overcome by the Orthodox Church, Gnostic writings were largely obliterated. In reconstructing Gnostic doctrines, therefore, modern scholars relied to a great extent on the writings of Irenaeus, who summarized the Gnostic views before attacking them. After the discovery of the Gnostic library near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 1940s (see Robinson), respect for Irenaeus increased. He was proved to have been extremely precise in his report of the doctrines he rejected.

The oldest lists of bishops also were countermeasures against the Gnostics, who said that they possessed a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself. Against such statements Irenaeus maintains that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles - and none of them was a Gnostic - and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of the Scriptures. With these lists of bishops the later doctrine of "the apostolic succession" of the bishops could be linked.

From these 2 sources we can appreciate the importance of Irenaeus as the first great Catholic theologian, the champion of orthodoxy against Gnostic heresy, and a mediating link between Eastern and Western churches.

Regarding the New Testament canon, one finds in Adversus Haereses quotations from all the books of the New Testament with the exception of:

Philemon, II Peter, III John, and Jude

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

I Clement , Shepherd of Hermas

However, the following he considered heretical:

Gospel of Truth

For a summary of his opinions see the Cross Reference Table. Irenaeus was especially insistent that there are exactly 4 Gospels, and used numerological arguments surrounding the number 4, such as the 4 covenants, for support.

Irenaeus and the Gospel according to Matthew

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. ..... Matthew proclaims his human birth, saying, 'The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham,' and, 'The birth of Jesus Christ was in this manner' . for this Gospel is manlike, and so through the whole Gospel [Christ] appears as a man of a humble mind, and gentle. (3.11.8)

According to the lists in [Hoh], Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, quotes 626 times from all 4 Gospels. Irenaeus was especially insistent that there are exactly 4 Gospels.

Irenaeus and the Gospel according to Mark

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. ..... But Mark takes his beginning from the prophetic Spirit who comes on men from on high saying, 'The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,' showing a winged image of the gospel. Therefore he made his message compendious and summary, for such is the prophetic character. (3.11.8)

According to the lists in [Hoh], Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, quotes 626 times from all 4 Gospels. Irenaeus was especially insistent that there are exactly 4 Gospels.

Irenaeus and the Gospel according to Luke

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. ..... That according to Luke, as having a priestly character, began with the priest Zacharias offering incense to God. For the fatted calf was already being prepared which was to be sacrificed for the finding of the younger son. (3.11.8) [c.f. Luke 15:23]

According to the lists in [Hoh], Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, quotes 626 times from all 4 Gospels. Irenaeus was especially insistent that there are exactly 4 Gospels.

Irenaeus and the Gospel according to John

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. For that according to John expounds his princely and mighty and glorious birth from the Father, saying, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,' and, 'All things were made by him, and without him nothing was nothing made' . Therefore this Gospel is deserving of all confidence, for such indeed is his person. (3.11.8)

According to the lists in [Hoh], Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, quotes 626 times from all 4 Gospels. Irenaeus was especially insistent that there are exactly 4 Gospels.

Irenaeus and Acts

According to the lists in [Hoh], Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, quotes from Acts 54 times.

Irenaeus and the Pauline Epistles

According to [Grant] p. 154, the frequencies of quotations and allusions to the Pauline Epistles in Irenaeus' Adversus Haereses are given by:
Romans 84
I Corinthians 102
II Corinthians 18
Galatians 27
Ephesians 37
Philippians 13
Colossians 18
I Thessalonians 2
II Thessalonians 9
I Timothy 5
II Timothy 5
Titus 4
Philemon 0

Irenaeus and Hebrews

According to [Grant] p. 154, there seems to be an allusion to Hebrews 1:3 in Adversus Haereses 2.30.9.

Irenaeus and James

According to [Grant] p. 155, there are 2 possible allusions to James in Adversus Haereses. They are in 4.16.2 (James 2:23) and 5.1.1 (James 1:18,22).

Irenaeus and I Peter

According to [Grant] p. 155, there is an allusion to I Peter in Adversus Haereses 5.7.2. This allusion and more might be listed in [Hoh].

Irenaeus and I-II John

According to [Grant] p. 155, Irenaeus cites I John in Adversus Haereses, 3.16.5 and, three paragraphs later, refers back to the same epistle but quotes from II John. He may have regarded I-II John as one letter; perhaps he was quoting from memory. More allusions might be listed in [Hoh].

Irenaeus and the Revelation of John

According to the lists in [Hoh], Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, quotes 29 times from the Revelation of John.

Irenaeus and the Four Gospels

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, 'O sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself '. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. (3.11.8)

The 4 creatures are allusions to Revelations 4:7-8. Irenaeus goes on to compare them to the Gospels according to John, Luke, Matthew, and Mark respectively. The Davidic quotation is from Psalms 80:1.

Irenaeus and the Four Covenants

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

... As is the activity of the Son of God, such is the form of the living creatures; and as is the form of the living creatures, such is also the character of the Gospel. For the living creatures were quadriform, and the gospel and the activity of the Lord is fourfold. Therefore four general covenants were given to mankind: one was that of Noah's deluge, by the [rain] bow; the second was Abraham's, by the sign of circumcision; the third was the giving of the Law by Moses; and the fourth is that of the Gospel, through our Lord Jesus Christ. (3.11.8)

Irenaeus and I Clement

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

When the blessed apostles had founded and built up the Church, they handed over the ministry of the episcopate to Linus. Paul mentions this Linus in his Epistles to Timothy. Anencletus succeeded him. After him Clement received the lot of the episcopate in the third place from the apostles. He had seen the apostles and associated with them, and still had their preaching sounding in his ears and their tradition before his eyes -- and not he alone, for there were many still left in his time who had been taught by the apostles. In this Clement's time no small discord arose among the brethren in Corinth, and the Church in Rome sent a very powerful letter to the Corinthians, leading them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which they had recently received from the apostles, which declared one almighty God, maker of heaven and earth and fashioner of man, who brought out the people from the land of Egypt; who spoke with Moses; who ordained the Law and sent the Prophets; and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. Those who care to can learn from this Writing that he was proclaimed by the churches as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so understand the apostolic tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is older than those present false teachers who make up lies about another God above the Demiurge and maker of all things that are. (3.3.3)

The last sentence makes it clear that Irenaeus regards I Clement as authoritative.

Irenaeus and the Shepherd of Hermas

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, "First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence. He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one." [Book 2, First Commandment, of the Shepherd of Hermas]. Rightly also has Malachi said among the prophets: "Is it not one God who hath established us? Have we not all one Father?" (4.20.2. of Adversus Haereses)
This passage, where Irenaeus calls the Shepherd of Hermas 'scripture', is mentioned by [Grant] p. 153 and [Metzger] p. 155.

Irenaeus and the Gospel of Truth

Irenaeus reports in Adversus Haereses:

But the followers of Valentinus, putting away all fear, bring forward their own compositions and boast that they have more Gospels than really exist. Indeed their audacity has gone so far that they entitle their recent composition the Gospel of Truth, though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the apostles, and so no Gospel of theirs is free from blasphemy. For if what they produce is the Gospel of Truth, and is different from those which the apostles handed down to us, those who care to can learn how it can be show from the Scriptures themselves that [then] what is handed down from the apostles is not the Gospel of Truth. (3.11.9)

Irenaeus and the Gospel of Judas

Irenaeus writes in Adversus Haereses:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas. (1.31.1)

This condemnation is mentioned in [Schneemelcher] p. 386.

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