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September 13, 2007 / vivator

Origen and Canon of New Testament

One of the early lists of New Testament books was given by Origen (c. 185 to 251 AD), scholar and author.  It was preserved in Church History, written by Eusebius (c. 260 to 339 AD), bishop of Caesarea and first historian of the Church.

In his first book on Matthew’s Gospel, maintaining the Canon of the Church, he [Origen] testifies that he knows only four Gospels, writing as follows: “Among the four Gospels,  which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language.  The second is by Mark, who composed it according to the instructions of Peter, who in his Catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, ‘The church that is at Babylon elected together with you, saluteth you, and so doth Marcus, my son.’ And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John.”

In the fifth book of his Expositions of John’s Gospel, he [Origen] speaks thus concerning the epistles of the apostles: “But he who was ‘made sufficient to be a minister of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the Spirit,’ that is, Paul, who ‘fully preached the Gospel from Jerusalem and round about even unto Illyricum,’ did not write to all the churches which he had instructed and to those to which he wrote he sent but few lines. And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, ‘against which the gates of hell shall not prevail,’ has left one acknowledged epistle; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful. Why need we speak of him who reclined upon the bosom of Jesus, John, who has left us one Gospel, though he confessed that he might write so many that the world could not contain them? And he wrote also the Apocalypse, but was commanded to keep silence and not to write the words of the seven thunders.  He has left also an epistle of very few lines; perhaps also a second and third; but not all consider them genuine, and together they do not contain hundred lines.”

In addition he [Origen] makes the following statements in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Homilies upon it: “That the verbal style of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews,’ is not rude like the language of the apostle, who acknowledged himself ‘rude in speech’ that is, in expression; but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge.  Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit.’ Farther on he adds: “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s.  But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it.” But let this suffice on these matters.

Eusebius, the Church History 6:25

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 1

Origen’s list has four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), Acts, Paul’s epistles (how many is not specified), Hebrews (of which he questioned its writer), one epistle of Peter, one of John and Revelation (or Apocalypse).  The list considers 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John as disputed books and does not mention James and Jude.   Origen defended the use of only four Gospels and listed a number of heretical Gospels like Gospel according to Egyptian and according to twelve Apostles (cf. Homily 1 on Luke) but he nevertheless still cited apocryphal gospels in his works.

But if a person accepts these words: My mother the Holy Spirit, has recently taken me and carried me up to the great Mount Tabor. [from Gospel according to the Hebrews]

Origen, Homily on Jeremiah 15.4.2

I have read elsewhere as if the Savior was speaking – and I question whether it was someone who was a figure for the person of the Savior or it was appended in his memory or if this may be truly what he said – The Savior there says, “Whoever is near me is near fire; whoever is far from me, is far from the kingdom.” [Gospel of Thomas 82]

Origen, Homily on Jeremiah 27.3.7

In de Principiis 2.1.5 he cited Shepherd of Hermas as Holy Scripture though he was aware that some despised the book (de Principiis 4.1.11).  According to F.F. Bruce (cf. the Canon of the Scripture page 193) Origen was the first known Christian writer to cite 2 Peter. 


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