A Dose of Reality About The New Testament Canon

st-barnabasMany Christians are confused about how the individual books which make up the New Testament “got into” the New Testament in the first place. They often assume the books were chosen by somebody. Perhaps you picture a conference room, with various books spread out over the table, an eager assistant fiddling with a PowerPoint presentation, and ballots being passed around. Not so much …

Why is a book canonical?

Michael Kruger has written a wonderful book on this subject, entitled Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. In this tome, he made the case for a “self-authenticating” model of canonicity.[1] This model is built around three criteria:

  1. The book has godly, divine qualities
  2. The book has apostolic origins. This doesn’t mean it was written by an apostle, but that it was written during the time the apostles were alive
  3. The book was corporately recognized and received by the church catholic

There’s a whole lot to unpack here, and I won’t bother to do it. If you’re interested, you can buy the book. Or, you can read some of the short articles Kruger has written on his website. My point is that, when it comes to the individual books which make up the New Testament canon, “[b]ooks are not canonical because they are recognized; they are recognized because they are already canonical.”[2] If God inspired a man to write the book, He made sure His sheep heard and recognized His voice in the book – which led His church, collectively, to accept it as sacred Scripture.

Barnabas’ letter

In this little article, I want to explain how that works in very practical terms. I believe Christians can read Scripture and immediately, intuitively understand its divine qualities (point #1, above). Likewise, a Christian can read something written by a Christian, and tell it isn’t divine. It may be helpful and really neat, but it isn’t divine, inspired, or inerrant.

I want to show you an excerpt from an ancient work entitled The Epistle of Barnabas. It was a very popular book in its day, but it isn’t “Scripture.” The book was likely not written by Baranbas himself. It was common in those days to attribute a work to a dead person who had “street cred,” in order to boost the work’s popularity. The book was written sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and before Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem in 132 – 135 A.D.[3] Most scholars date it sometime in the first quarter of the second century. The book is note-worthy because it is extraordinarily anti-Jewish, and takes an allegorical approach to interpreting the OT Scriptures.

Why isn’t this book “Scripture?” Why isn’t it in your New Testament right now? Well, one reason is that it clearly doesn’t have “divine qualities.” Here is an excerpt from the book (Barnabas 10:1-8).[4]

What do you think of it?

And that Moses said, “You will not eat pig or eagle or hawk or crow or any fish which does not have scales on itself,” he included three doctrines in his understanding. ⌊Moreover⌋, he says to them in Deuteronomy, “And I will make a covenant of my regulations with this people.” Therefore, as a result the commandment of God is not ⌊to refrain from eating⌋, but Moses spoke in the spirit (Barnabas 10:1-2).

So, Moses “spoke in the spirit,” did he? What does this mean? Heh. Get ready …

Therefore, he mentioned the pig for this reason: you will not be joined, he says, with people such as these, who are like pigs. That is, when they live luxuriously they forget the Lord, but when they have need, they acknowledge the Lord, as also the pig when it eats it does not know its owner, but when it is hungry it cries out, and after receiving food, it is silent again.

I … see. This is allegorical interpretation. According to Barnabas, the dietary laws aren’t really about food at all. Did you think they were? Silly you! Moses wasn’t talking about literal pigs. He was referring to people who are moral pigs. It gets worse.

“And you shall not eat the eagle or the hawk or the kite or the crow.” He means you must not join with or ⌊resemble⌋ people such as these, who do not know how, by toil and sweat, to provide food for themselves, but they plunder what belongs to another in their lawlessness, and they lie in wait, as if conducting themselves in purity, and they look around to see who they may plunder through their greediness, as also these birds alone do not provide food for themselves, but sitting idle, seeks out how it may devour the flesh of another, having become a public nuisance in its wickedness.

Ah, of course. How could I have been so blind for so long? The eagle sits up high, watching and waiting for prey so it can strike like a silent ninja. Just so, we must not imitate this wickedness. It’s all clear to me, now.

And “You shall not eat,” he says, “the sea eel or the octopus or the cuttle-fish.” He means you shall not become like such animals, joining with people such as these, who are ungodly to the end and who are condemned already to death, as also these cursed little fish swim alone in the deep water, not swimming as the rest, but they dwell in the mud beneath the deep water.

This is profound.

But also you shall not eat the rabbit. For what reason? You shall not become, he means, a child molester, or even seem like such as these, because the rabbit multiplies its anus each year, for as many years as it lives, so many holes it has.

Words fail me.

But, “You shall not eat the hyena.” He means do not become an adulterer or a corrupter, and do not even seem like such as these. For what reason? Because this animal changes its nature each year, and it becomes ⌊one year male⌋, ⌊the next year female⌋.

Of course they do. Doesn’t everybody know that?

But he also hated the weasel rightly. Do not become, he means, such as this, of the sort we hear committing transgression with the mouth through impurity, and do not be joined with the unclean women, those who commit transgression with the mouth, for this animal conceives with the mouth.

Enough!

Barnabas has some interesting insights (it’s not all this weird, honest), but it clearly isn’t Scripture. It doesn’t have the divine qualities. Jesus and the apostles didn’t interpret the Old Testament allegorically. This author does. This book was written in a different time, in a different context, and from a different worldview than the New Testament. It’s clear.

If you disagree, I’m willing to hear your exegesis of the rabbit passage, above. I’ll be standing by.

Notes

[1] Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 88-122.

[2] Ibid, 108.

[3] See the short introduction in Michael Holmes (ed.), The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 160.

[4] This excerpt is from The Apostolic Fathers in English, translated Rick Brannan (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

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