It can be troubling at first to realize that the canon was a thing which developed over time, but if you think about it for a while, you will realize that it had to happen this way. You doubtless already knew that the various books of the New Testament were written over the course of several decades after Jesus’ death, rather then by Jesus himself. The church needed to time to gather these writings together in a single volume. Additionally, it had to exercise judgment, as forgeries and false writing were also being created.
We can take comfort in the fact that there was no single person who commandeered the process and decided what the canon would be. Given a shorter timespan, perhaps theological fads or a powerful personality could have influenced the process in an untoward way, but instead the process worked itself out over several centuries. By the time the Council of Carthage formalized the canon, the church had already reached a consensus on its contents for many decades. Time has borne out the wisdom of their selection.
Some Non-canonical Documents
- Class Materials – Though I like to think that my class materials are both useful and pious, they are very far from being canonical.
- Shepherd of Hermas – A popular book in the early church. Considered helpful, but not canonical.
“Hear then,” said he, “with regard to the three forms, concerning which you are inquiring. Why in the first vision did she appear to you as an old woman seated on a chair? Because your spirit is now old and withered up, and has lost its power in consequence of your infirmities and doubts. For, like elderly men who have no hope of renewing their strength, and expect nothing but their last sleep, so you, weakened by worldly occupations, have given yourselves up to sloth, and have not cast your cares upon the Lord. Your spirit therefore is broken, and you have grown old in your sorrows.” “I should like then to know, sir, why she sat on a chair?” He answered, “Because every weak person sits on a chair on account of his weakness, that his weakness may be sustained. Lo! you have the form of the first vision.
“Now in the second vision you saw her standing with a youthful countenance, and more joyful than before; still she had the skin and hair of an aged woman. Hear,” said he, “this parable also. When one becomes somewhat old, he despairs of himself on account of his weakness and poverty, and looks forward to nothing but the last day of his life. Then suddenly an inheritance is left him: and hearing of this, he rises up, and becoming exceeding joyful, he puts on strength. And now he no longer reclines, but stands up; and his spirit, already destroyed by his previous actions, is renewed, and he no longer sits, but acts with vigor. So happened it with you on hearing the revelation which God gave you. For the Lord had compassion on you, and renewed your spirit, and ye laid aside your infirmities. Vigor arose within you, and ye grew strong in faith; and the Lord, seeing your strength, rejoiced. On this account He showed you the building of the tower; and He will show you other things, if you continue at peace with each other with all your heart.
“Now, in the third vision, you saw her still younger, and she was noble and joyful, and her shape was beautiful. For, just as when some good news comes suddenly to one who is sad, immediately he forgets his former sorrows, and looks for nothing else than the good news which he has heard, and for the future is made strong for good, and his spirit is renewed on account of the joy which he has received; so ye also have received the renewal of your spirits by seeing these good things. As to your seeing her sitting on a seat, that means that her position is one of strength, for a seat has four feet and stands firmly. For the world also is kept together by means of four elements. Those, therefore, who repent completely and with the whole heart, will become young and firmly established. You now have the revelation completely given you? Make no further demands for revelations. If anything ought to be revealed, it will be revealed to you.”
- Epistle of Barnabas – Probably not actually written by Barnabas, used in a few early churches but ultimately rejected, for reasons that will become apparent upon reading it:
Now, in that Moses said, “Ye shall not eat swine, nor an eagle, nor a hawk, nor a crow, nor any fish which has no 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 ordinances with this people.” So then the ordinance of God is not abstinence from eating, but Moses spoke in the spirit. He mentioned the swine for this reason: you shall not consort, he means, with men who are like swine, that is to say, when they have plenty they forget the Lord, but when they are in want they recognize the Lord, just as the swine when it eats does not know its master, but when it is hungry it cries out, and after receiving food is again silent. “Thou shall not,” he says, “eat the hare.” Why? “Thou shall not be a corrupter of boys, nor like unto such.” Because the hare multiplies, year by year, its orifices; for as many years as it lives so many it has. Moreover, “Thou shall not eat the hyena.” He means, “Thou shall not be an adulterer, nor a corrupter, nor be like to them that are such.” Why? Because that animal annually changes its sex, and is at one time male, and at another female. Moreover, he has rightly detested the weasel. For he means, “Thou shalt not be like to those whom we hear of as committing wickedness with the mouth, on account of their uncleanness; nor shall thou be joined to those impure women who commit iniquity with the mouth. For this animal conceives by the mouth.”
- Gospel of Thomas – Neither a Gospel in the sense of being a historical account, nor written by Thomas. This was never well regarded by the early church (or even though of by them much at all), but has become popular to talk about in recent days.
These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas recorded.
1 And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”
2 Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.”
3 Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
4 Jesus said, “The person old in days won’t hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live.
For many of the first will be last, and will become a single one.”
5 Jesus said, “Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.
For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.
6 His disciples asked him and said to him, “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?”
Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed.”
7 Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And cursed is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”
8 And he said, The person is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea, and easily chose the large fish. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!