on April 17, 2010
Metzger begins by introducing six "firmly established landmarks" around which his work will focus (1-8). He then devotes 25 pages to survey literature on the NT canon that alone makes the book an indispensable tool for bibliographic reference. Of note is the skeptical tone used to describe B. S. Childs' 1983 work The New Testament as Canon (35-6).
Metzger devotes 34 pages to the Apostolic Fathers (39-73). He judges Clement of Rome never to have referred to the NT writings as authoritative 'Scripture' (43). Likewise in regard to Ignatius, "There is no evidence that he regarded any of these Gospels or Epistles as 'Scripture'" (49). Papias's primary significance for the history of the NT canon is in showing how some valued oral tradition over written documents (56). Polycarp is the greatest early witness to the apostolic authority of NT writings (although not using scripture-quoting formulas), distinguishing them from other writings even in his own age in the early 2nd century (63). As a whole, the Apostolic Fathers sensed an implicit authority in NT documents but not exclusively in those documents (73). With such statements Metzger lays the framework for one of his three criteria for canonicity: apostolicity. The other two are the 'rule of faith' and continuous acceptance (251-4).
Metzger discusses six external pressures that led the early Church to ascertain what books were canonical, namely, (1) Gnosticism (including Basilides, Carpocrates, Valentinus and his followers, the Nag Hammadi tractates), (2) Marcion (including his ideas, so-called prologues, and influence), (3) Montanism, (4) persecution, (5) ancient book-making, and (6) collections and lists of authoritative books (75-112). Metzger takes a mediating position on Marcion, that he merely accelerated the Church's canonizing process that had already begun; in other words, he admits neither that Marcion was the first to propagate a canon nor that he merely accepted and rejected books from an already-established more comprehensive Church canon (98-9). Metzger affirms that the codex played no part in the selection of the books in the canon, but only in the relative fixing of their sequence (109). He furthermore expresses uncertainty whether the ancient Alexandrian tradition of drawing up canon lists of classical Greek works (ca. 250 BC - AD 150) influenced the development of the Christian canon (111).
Metzger discusses the development of the NT canon in the east with regard to Syria (Tatian, Theophilus), Asia Minor (Polycarp, Melito), Greece (Dionysius, Athenagoras, Aristides), and Egypt (Pantaenus, Clement, Origen) (113-41). He affirms that Tatian's Diatessaron "supplies proof that all four Gospels were regarded as authoritative" (115). While Serapion (ca. 200) rejected pseudonymous works, Metzger appears to grant that his testimony may indicate early acceptance of the General Epistles in Antioch (120). He further judges Melito's expressions (ca. 170) 'the old books' (TA PALAIA BIBLIA) and 'the books of the Old Covenant' (TA THS PALAIAS DIAQHKHS BIBLIA) "to imply the recognition of 'the books of the New Covenant' as a written antitype to the Old" (123). While Clement of Alexandria evidences an "open" canon, Metzger apparently upholds the authenticity and significance of the Latin translation of Origen's Homilies on Joshua (ca. 240), where all 27 books of the NT, and no more, are described (139-40). He furthermore suggests Origen's more closed views on the canon may be related to his move away from Alexandria in 230 (141).
Discussing the development of the NT canon in the West, Metzger includes the three geographical areas of Rome (Justin Martyr, Hippolytus), Gaul (Epistle of Lyons and Vienne, Irenaeus), and North Africa (Scillitan Martyrs, Tertullian, Cyprian, Against Dice-Players) (143-64). He affirms that Justin not only referred to but was heavily influenced by the Fourth Gospel (146-7) and considered Revelation "apostolic" (148).
Chapter 7 is devoted to apocryphal literature that "in certain parts of the Church enjoyed temporary canonicity" (165-89). Among apocryphal gospels, Metzger comments on the Egerton Papyrus 2, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Peter, noting their "inferior" nature and how "one can appreciate the difference between the character of the canonical Gospels and the near banality of most of the gospels dating from the second and third centuries" (173). Among apocryphal acts, Metzger discusses the Acts of Paul, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Peter, noting their historical importance at least in showing the insatiable appetite among ancient Christians for sensational entertainment (179). Among the few apocryphal epistles that were popularized, Meztger comments on the Epistle of the Apostles, 3 Corinthians, Laodiceans, and the Correspondence between Paul and Seneca, the first of which (ca. 180) is significant for the author's vast acquaintance with all four canonical Gospels (181), while Laodiceans represents "one of the most feeble" attempts at writing spurious literature (183). Metzger then discusses the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul, along with other more orthodox miscellaneous writings (e.g., the Didache, 1 and 2 Clement, Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas). Metzger apparently holds all to be pseudonymous.
The Muratorian Canon and Eusebius's classification system receive attention in Chapter 8 (191-207). Metzger affirms a 2nd-century Roman (or near vicinity) origin for the Muratorian list, calling Sundberg's arguments for a 4th-century date "inconclusive at best" (191) and "not to say demolished" by E. Ferguson (193). Metzger admits the possibility that the fragment might mention all three Johannine Epistles, but appears to favor it mentioning just 1 and 2 John (197). As to Eusebius's "fair and practical" account (206), Metzger affirms that Eusebius most likely included Hebrews among the Pauline Epistles; otherwise his lack of comment on it is inexplicable (205). Metzger, citing a different text-type from that which became dominant in the east, doubts that codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus were among the 50 manuscripts that Eusebius had made for Constantine (207).
Chapter 9 discusses attempts to close the canon in the East by certain people (Cyril, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, Amphilochius, Didymus the Blind, Epiphanius, etc.) and churches (Syrian, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, and Ethiopian) (209-228). Metzger's historical discussion presents an overwhelming lack of consensus on which books were to be considered canonical by influential people and churches in the east, leaving one with the impression that "uncertainty and vacillation" reigned supreme with regard to the NT canon in that region (216).
The Latin Church in the west, on the other hand, sought to make "a sharp delineation with regard to the canon" (229). Metzger discusses first in Chapter 10 the Clermont and Mommsen lists, Hilary, Lucifer, Philaster, Rufinus, Jerome, Augustine, and then the middle ages, Reformers, and the Council of Trent (229-47). Metzger relates that Jerome felt he could not change the 27-book NT canon (236), while Augustine used his great influence with the effect of closing the NT canon with 27 books (238). He also notes that manuscripts in use and being copied were not immediately updated after the pronouncements, with the effect that copies of manuscripts with or without Hebrews, for example, continued to be made (238).
Chapter 10 covers problems confronting the early church concerning the canon (251-66). Metzger lists three criteria the early church used to determine canonicity: the 'rule of faith' (regula fidei); apostolicity; and continuous acceptance (251-3). Inspiration, on the other hand, was not regarded by the early fathers as the ground of the Bible's uniqueness (255), although later the concepts of inspiration and canonicity became somewhat synonymous by logical (= theological) necessity (257). On the question of which part of the NT was first considered authoritative, Metzger suggests the Gospels received canonical status before the Pauline corpus on the grounds of their overwhelmingly more frequent quotation among all early fathers, even, of course, after taking into account the differing lengths of the books (262). The plurality of the Gospels was attacked early on by the apparent need of some for one non-conflicting account (e.g., Marcion's Luke, Tatian's Diatessaron, exclusive use of Matthew or John, etc.), but the manifold witness of a fourfold Gospel, to use Cullmann's words, was required by the faith (263-4). Metzger also admits the particularity of the Pauline Epistles caused certain scribal changes to make them more universal, such as the omission of 'in Rome' in Romans 1:7, the lack of a destination in Ephesians 1:1, the possible addition of 'together with all' (SUN PASIN) in 1 Corinthians 1:2, etc. (265).
Metzger turns his attention to interesting questions in Chapter 11 (267-88). First, he relates that there is no specific canonical form of the text of NT books (270). Second, he shows that while books theoretically could be added to or subtracted from the canon, such remains a practical impossibility (275). Third, he criticizes setting up a 'canon within the canon,' noting that tensions within the NT do not jeopardize its homogeneity (280). Last, he argues emphatically that the NT canon is indeed a collection of self-authenticating authoritative books and not simply an authoritative collection of books (282-8).
Metzger concludes his book with four helpful appendices: (1) the history of the word canon (KANWN); (2) variations in the sequence of NT books; (3) the titles of NT books; and (4) early lists of books in the NT (289-315). He affirms there was virtually no early standardization of the sequence of NT books (300), that the NT books must have had titles added to them after being brought together in collections, and that the titles of the Gospels were likely added by the same individual (302).
To conclude, Metzger's book provides an interesting and flowing narrative of the history of the NT canon. It not only stands as an outstanding bibliographic tool, but also provides critical analysis of many of the most important works in the field. The Canon of the New Testament can certainly be described as multum in parvo, a phrase Metzger uses to describe another's work (36). In terms of comprehensiveness not divorced from concision, Metzger's book so far is yet unsurpassed.