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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The New Testament Apocrypha Books

Don Stewart :: Were Certain Books Left Out of the New Testament Canon?

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Were Certain Books Left Out of the New Testament Canon?

The New Testament Apocrypha – Question 9

In the history of the church, there have been certain writings that were given canonical status for a short period of time, and by a small number of people. These works had only limited recognition in certain geographical areas. They are not, “lost Scripture,” or works that were left out of the canon. There is no evidence that they should be included in the New Testament canon.

We can make the following observations about these writings:

There Are Different Reasons as to Why Some Books Were Considered Canonical

There are a number of works that have been accepted as part of New Testament Scripture in at least one of the following ways:

1. The Testimony of an Orthodox Early Church Father

An early church Father, who held to the central beliefs of the Christian faith, testified to its canonical status. For whatever reason, he assumed the writing held some sort of authority.

2. It Is Found in Ancient Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament

The work is found in at least one of the oldest complete, or nearly complete, Greek manuscript that contained the New Testament. The writing was copied alongside the New Testament books and placed with it.

3. It Is Found in Some Printed Bibles

The work is found in more than one printed Bible. This means that Bible-believers, for some reason, assumed the writing was worthy to be placed with other books of New Testament Scripture.

The Following Books Meet One of These Criteria

The following works meet at least one of these criteria:

The Letter of Clement (A.D. 90-100)

In A.D. 95, Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthian church. This is an extremely important work because Clement was the leading elder of the Church of Rome. He wrote his letter to the Corinthians to end a dispute between the laity and the elders. He was probably the same Clement that Paul mentioned in one of his letters. Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Yes, I say also to you, true companion, help them. They have struggled together in the gospel ministry along with me and Clement and my other coworkers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3 NET)

The Message puts it this way:

And, oh, yes…since you’re right there to help them work things out, do your best with them. These women worked for the Message hand in hand with Clement and me, and with the other veterans—worked as hard as any of us. Remember, their names are also in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3 MsgB)

The Letter of Clement is found at the end of the New Testament books in Codex Alexandrinus (A)—a fifth century Greek manuscript that contains the New Testament as well as parts of the Old Testament. The church historian Eusebius states that it was read in many churches (Eusebius, History, 3.16).

While Clement quotes all of the books of the New Testament with the exception of Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John, the book does not claim to possess divine authority. There was never any wide acceptance of this work as part of the New Testament.

The Second Letter of Clement (A.D. 120-140)

This letter was, at one time, attributed to Clement of Rome. However, he is not the author of this document. It is basically the transcription of a sermon. The Second Letter of Clement is found at the end of the New Testament in the Greek manuscript Codex Alexandrinus (A). There is no claim to divine authority within this writing.

The Letter of Barnabas (First or Second Century)

The exact date of the Letter of Barnabas is uncertain. It was written to show that Jesus is a fulfillment of the Old Testament law. This work is found in Codex Sinaiticus (aleph)—a fourth century Greek manuscript, as well as the table of contents of Codex Bezae (D)—a sixth century Greek manuscript. Clement of Alexandria and Origen quoted it as Scripture. The work does not claim divine authority and neither was it written by the Barnabas who is mentioned in the New Testament.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas is an early work that some have argued actually belongs in Scripture. This work is found in Codex Sinaiticus (aleph)—a fourth century Greek manuscript, as well as the table of contents of Codex Bezae (D)—a sixth century Greek manuscript. It is also found in some early Latin translations of the New Testament. The church fathers Origen and Irenaeus quoted it as Scripture. Eusebius said it was read publicly and used for instruction in the churches.

Some have attributed it to the same Hermas that Paul mentioned in his letter to the Romans. He wrote:

Greet... Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. (Romans 16:14 NRSV)

The Muratorian fragment, an early canonical list, said of it:

It ought to be read; but it cannot be publicly read in the church to the people, either among the prophets, since their number is complete, or the apostles till the end of time.

It was realized that this work was not to be considered on the same level as Holy Scripture. There are a number of reasons as to why this is so:

It Is an Allegory

The Shepherd of Hermas is an allegory—similar to John Bunyan’s A Pilgrims Progress. While the use of allegory is found in parts of Scripture, there is no complete biblical book that would fit into this literary category.

Furthermore, this work commands a number of things that are actually contradictory to the rest of Scripture. This includes the following teachings:

It Teaches the Necessity of Penance

In “the Shepherd of Hermas,” we find the necessity of doing penance for the forgiveness of sin. This is totally opposed to the teaching of Scripture. Forgiveness of sin occurs the moment one asks for it. Paul wrote:

For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. (Romans 10:9-10 NLT)

This is the biblical teaching on the subject. Forgiveness is complete the moment we ask Christ to be our Savior.

The Holy Spirit Is Wrongly Identified with Jesus

The author seems to identify the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ before Jesus became a human being. Scripture teaches that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are two distinct Persons; the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity.

It Has a False Understanding of the Trinity

“The Shepherd of Hermas” also teaches that the Trinity came into existence only after Jesus had ascended into heaven. The Bible says that the Trinity has existed eternally.

These teachings make it impossible for this work to be part of Scripture. This was recognized by the Christians. The church father Athanasius wrote:

For the blessed Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews says, “By faith we understand that the ages were framed by the Word of God, so that which is seen is not made of things which do not appear. But nothing is common to the Word with the ages; for He it is who is in existence before the ages came to be. And in the Shepherd [of Hermas] it is written…though it is not of the Canon.”

He realized the sub-biblical nature of the work.

The Didache

“The Didache” is the “Teaching of the Twelve.” An unknown author wrote it in either the first or the second century A.D. Clement of Alexandria quoted it as Scripture, but the church historian Eusebius listed it among the rejected writings. It is not found in any canonical list, neither was it ever translated by those in the early church.

It teaches a number of things that are contradictory to the New Testament. They are as follows:

1. It Has Non-Biblical Rules Concerning Baptism

The Didache teaches that a person must fast before being baptized in water. In addition, baptism must take place in running water (7:4). Nothing like this is taught in the New Testament.

2. This Work Says Believers Are to Daily Recite the Lord’s Prayer

Believers are to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (9:1-5). However, this is just the opposite of what Jesus taught. He warned believers against repeating the same prayers over and over again. Matthew records Jesus saying the following:

When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8 NET)

Here we have something teaching exactly the opposite of what Christ taught!

3. The Length of the Apostles’ Stay in a City Contradicts Scripture

According to the Didache, genuine apostles were forbidden to stay in a city for more than two days (11:5).

However, the Apostle Paul stayed and taught in the city of Corinth for eighteen months. We read the following in the Book of Acts:

So Paul stayed for a year and a half; teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18:11 NIV)

Today’s New International Version adds the words “in Corinth” to this verse. It reads:

So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half; teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18:11 TNIV)

This is another clear contradiction between this work, the Didache, and the New Testament.

4. They Are Told Not to Test the Prophets

We are also told that genuine prophets, who spoke by means of the Holy Spirit, could not be tested (11:7). However, the Scripture says otherwise:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two - or at the most three - should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. (1 Corinthians 14:27 TNIV)

Paul also wrote:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 NRSV)

Again, we have a contradiction between these two works.

5. There Were Certain Days for Believers to Fast

According to the Didache, there were certain days in which believers were to fast. They were Wednesday and Friday. Believers were forbidden to fast on Monday or Thursday (8:1)—the days the religious Jews fasted. However, there is nothing in Scripture that says anything about fasting on certain days.

6. There Were Non-biblical Teachings about the Lord’s Supper

There are also some teachings about the Lord’s Supper that go beyond what the New Testament says. For example, it says that unbaptized persons could not participate in the Lord’s Supper.

In addition, prayers not recorded in the New Testament were given as a pattern for celebrating the Lord’s Supper (9:1-5).

Thus, we find that the evidence is clear that the Didache has no place in the New Testament canon. However, in the Didache, we do find this important statement:

You shall not forsake the commandments of the Lord but you shall keep the things received, neither adding nor taking away. (Didache 4:13)

This illustrates the importance of knowing the commands of the Lord as well as keeping them. To know the commands of the Lord, it is important to know what sources accurately teach His commands; in other words, a New Testament canon.

The Apocalypse of Peter (A.D. 150)

This work was mentioned in the table of contents in Codex Bezae. Clement of Alexandria quoted it as Scripture. Although it was widely circulated in the early church, Simon Peter did not write it. It was actually written about one hundred years after his death. Therefore, the work is a forgery.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla (A.D. 170)

This work is found in the table of contents in Codex Bezae. Origen also quotes it as authoritative Scripture. It is the account of Thecla—a woman who was supposedly converted under the ministry of the Apostle Paul (Acts 14:1-7). While it may be based upon a true story, the account is fictional. Among other things, this work contains a physical description of Paul.

The Letter to the Laodiceans (Unknown Date)

In Colossians 4:16, Paul mentioned a letter to the Laodiceans. He wrote the following to the church of Colosse:

And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 NRSV)

This is what Paul wrote to the Colossians. However, this later work, known as the “Letter to the Laodiceans,” is not from Paul. Rather, it is a compilation of a number of phrases from Paul’s writings. The claim of the Scriptural status concerning this work came later in the history of the church.

A work with this name is mentioned in the Muratorian fragment; an early canonical list. However, this is not referring to the same written work. As can be imagined, this has caused some confusion.

Many Latin manuscripts, which were produced for church use, actually contain this work. In the 10th century, Alfric, who later became archbishop of Canterbury, listed the work as among Paul’s canonical writings. It has appeared in some Bibles from the 6th to the 15th century. For example, it was part of the Bohemian Bible of 1488.

There is more. During the Protestant Reformation, this fraudulent work appeared in some English and German Bibles. However, its canonical status has never been accepted by the church, nor should it be accepted.

Third Corinthians

One work that made it into some canonical lists was Third Corinthians. This was received as canonical by some of the leaders of the Syrian Church in the Fourth Century.

However, there is no evidence that this work was written by Paul. It is possible that this work was actually created by believers to combat the spread of Gnosticism. The Gnostics made much about the phrase Paul used, “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God.” They took this to mean that Paul did not teach the bodily resurrection of believers. Yet, this is something which he did indeed clearly teach. Third Corinthians may have been composed to clarify the view of Paul on the subject.

These Works Are Not Scriptural, but They Are of Some Importance

These works fail to add anything to God’s revelation, or to our knowledge of the history of redemption. While these writings cannot claim canonical status, they are important for a number of reasons. They include the following:

First, they give us insight into the practices of the early church. They help us understand how the early church understood the commands of the New Testament.

In addition, we learn about certain of the teachings that were circulating at an early date that claimed to be “Christian.” We know that false doctrine was being taught from the very beginning. These works help us understand some of these false teachings.

Finally, they give further testimony to the genuine books that make up the present New Testament. They further the case that the New Testament was limited to the twenty-seven books that make up the canon of Scripture.

Summary – Question 9
Were Certain Books Left Out of the New Testament Canon?

There were a number of books written early in the history of the church that gained some sort of canonical status by at least one church father, or are found in at least one of the important ancient Greek manuscripts that contain the New Testament, or are found in some printed Bibles.

They include: The Letter of Clement, the Second Letter of Clement, the Letter of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Letter to the Laodiceans, and Third Corinthians.

These writings, however, were never seriously considered to be canonical by the majority of Christians.

Were There Local Canons in the Early Years of the Church? ← Prior Section
What Is Canon Criticism? Next Section →
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