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§ 4. The New Testament has preserved for us the most valuable portion of primitive Christian literature; yet at the same time it delivered the rest of the earliest works to oblivion, and has limited the transmission of later works.

The first clause of the heading of this paragraph requires no proof. It is by no means certain that the Pauline Epistles would have been handed down to us if as a collection they had not been canonised. The author of the Second Epistle of Peter and Irenæus complain of the difficulties which they contain, indeed they presented a thousand stumbling-blocks to the orthodox teacher, and were exploited in a most irritating way by heretics in opposition to the doctrine of the Church.137137How troublesome were such expressions as, “The god of this world,” or the doctrines of Predestination and of the Divine hardening of the heart, or the teaching that the Law multiplied transgressions, etc.! Nor was it otherwise with the Johannine Apocalypse: the Canon alone has preserved it from oblivion. Both in form and content it presented most troublesome stumbling-blocks to the Church, more troublesome indeed as time went on. And further, can we be sure that the Acts of the Apostles, from the historical point of view the most valuable work of primitive times—to say nothing of works so small as the Catholic Epistles—would have come down to us if it had not found its way into the new 132Canon? Even in the third century the Christology of this book would have given grave offence if the fact that the book was Canonical had not barred for ever the question whether it was everywhere orthodox. And what of the Gospels? If it had been possible in the third and fourth centuries to cite them before the Court of the Church, how sadly they would have fared! Even against the Gospel of St John an orthodox judge would have been compelled to admit a heavy catalogue of offences! The Canon, however, settled these questions once and for all. There can be no doubt here: we have to thank the New Testament that we possess these works, that we have in our hands an important and trustworthy account of the beginnings of the Christian religion. We need only reflect for a moment what our knowledge of the beginnings of Christianity would have been if the Church History of Eusebius had been our sole authority—leaving out of account what this work owes to the New Testament—in order to see clearly what it means that twenty-seven early Christian writings have been preserved for us because they were bound together in the New Testament.138138We not infrequently hear high praise given to the historical “tact” with which the books of the New Testament were selected; “tact,” however, played no part here. If we consider in the first place the Roman Canon at the end of the second century, “tact” resolves itself into a succession of historical necessities which originated in the practice of public lection and in a growing acceptance of the Apostolic-Catholic principle. These explain the acceptance of the four Gospels, of the collection of Pauline Epistles, and, finally, of the Acts of the Apostles. The latter book was accepted not through the exercise of historical “tact,” but because the situation produced an instinctive demand for a book of all the Apostles. Even the reception of four Gospels was determined certainly not by historical “tact,” but most probably could not have been avoided if it were wished to keep together the orthodox Christians of Asia. The Gospels of the Hebrews and of the Egyptians were in favour, we may definitely assume, with relatively small and isolated circles, and the Gospel of Peter was too late in its appearance. Moreover the expansion of the Canon to twenty-seven works, to be regretted by no one (what about 2 Peter?), was not due to the historical “tact” of the Church, but to the apostolic names of the authors of the added books. And it was because Hermas, 1 and 2 Clement, Barnabas, etc., could not satisfy the demand for apostolic origin that they were at last barred from the New Testament.


But, on the other hand, with the creation of the New Testament begins the death struggle of that portion of Early Christian literature that had not found acceptance in the Canon. I have dealt with the story at length in the Introduction to the first volume of my Altchristliche Lit.-Geschichte.139139Bd. 1, p. xxi. ff. Cf. also the history of the transmission of 1 and 2 Clement, Barnabas, Hermas, in my edition of these works. It is not a question of the loss of early heretical works—the New Testament scarcely had anything to do with this—but of the loss of early orthodox works. Such works, which were originally to be found in the more extensive sacred collections of some provincial Churches, especially the Alexandrian, must now yield to the stern Roman Law of the Canon, and were for the most part separated away and delivered to death under the reproach that they were interlopers, that their very existence 134was a piece of insolence, that they were forgeries, and so forth. As a matter of fact they looked like rivals of the works of the New Testament, and must be treated accordingly. There was no middle course; either they must be accepted, or they must be done away with under more or less serious charges. But here an ironical Nemesis intervened, and has preserved for us some early forms of the New Testament (or copies of such forms) in which some portions of this literature still stand! Thus the New Testament, whose intention was to slay these works, was compelled to preserve some of them.140140I have no doubt that the Constantinopolitan manuscript of the Didache ultimately proceeds from a manuscript of the Bible. It is in this way that the first and second Epistles of Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, Hermas, lastly also the Didache, have come down to us, as well as large portions of the Apocalypse of Peter, of the Acts of Paul, and of the Diatessaron of Tatian. At first, even after the rejection of the books, their treatment in the Churches was more indulgent than it afterwards became. The Muratorian Fragment, which rejects the Shepherd of Hermas, still favours the private reading of the book, and even as late as the fourth century “Antilegomena” are recommended by Athanasius for the instruction of catechumens. But even this connivance soon came to an end.

This destructive influence of the New Testament 135had, however, yet wider scope. “Quid necesse est in manu sumere quod ecclesia non recipit,” says Jerome, and the Spanish bishops upheld the same view against Priscillian, with his noteworthy preference for Apocrypha. “Omne quod dicitur in libris canonicis,” they declared, “quæritur et plus legisse peccare est.” Here stands the very principle of Biblicism which, strictly applied, must have destroyed all Christian literature and must have cut off all hope of a future resurrection. The New Testament might have become a Koran! What need was there of other books? Either they contained what was in the New Testament, then they were superfluous; or they contained other things, then they were dangerous. The Roman Church, from the time of Damasus onwards, proceeded far along this road. Only read the Decretum Gelasianum! If things had gone in accordance with this decree, what would have been left for us of the literature of the first three centuries? Standing upon the New Testament it condemns practically everything else. Now it is true that the ordinances of this decree could assert their authority only to a limited extent, and that they were counteracted by other influences connected with the New Testament, of which we shall speak in the following paragraph; yet there can be no doubt that in the decree a judgment is expressed that tended to cramp Christian literary activity and 136to hinder the transmission of earlier works. The great lack of books always noticeable in the Early Church of Rome, and the literary unproductiveness of the Roman clergy, must be understood and judged from this point of view.

But while pointing out the fact that the New Testament hindered the transmission of non-canonical Christian literature and continued to limit its production, we do not mean to assert that this was in every aspect disadvantageous. The hindrance was rather, especially in one special direction, truly happy in its consequences; for, as early as the second century, an inferior literature began to spring up in the Church, increasing in luxuriance from century to century—a literature that was greedily read and that threatened to stifle all feeling for historical truth and for simplicity and purity in religion—that confused mass of apocryphal acts of Apostles, fabricated stories of martyrs and ascetics, ghastly Apocalypses, inventions concerning the Childhood of Jesus, and the like. Side by side with the Canonical Scriptures this literature is represented in every quarter and in every language of the Church by works all essentially similar in character though varying somewhat according to the taste of the time. Much of this literature was really Apocryphal, i.e. it carried on a kind of underground existence, appearing again and again at the surface and 137exercising, in ever increasing degree, a most remarkable influence upon cultus and religious life. Not only many customs, but even Sacraments and Sacramental rites of the Catholic Church took their form under this influence. If the New Testament had not been in existence, the Church would have fallen a complete victim to this literature.141141This happened to the Monophysite Churches in spite of the New Testament. Standing, however, upon the New Testament, the Church repressed the Apocrypha and repeatedly forbade the reading of these books. The Rule of Faith was useless here; armed only with this, the Church would have been defenceless in this situation. But the New Testament safeguarded the Church, because it stood on a height to which these Apocrypha could no longer attain. It held these books down under its strong hand, and prevented their tendencies from coming to full development; it barred the way to the Ambo and Altar, and saved the true portrait of Jesus from complete obliteration. If the New Testament had not occupied since the beginning of the third century the position of central authority in the Church, all Churches would have probably become Ethiopian. There is no need of proof here; for there was absolutely no other authority in the Church except the New Testament that could have warded off the throttling hand of the Apocrypha.

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