What with the media hubbub about the “Jesus Seminar” and the supposed unreliability of Scripture, many modern readers naturally wonder, “Where did the Bible come from anyway? Why are these gospels included in the canon and not, say, the Gospel of Thomas?”
This is a question profoundly troubling to the modern mind since the modern mind is profoundly disturbed by the question of authority–especially religious authority. Thus, when the Catholic forthrightly declares that the Bible’s table of contents was fixed by the authority of the Church, the modern mind feels a strong urge to protest and greet such claims with deep suspicion and a big “Sez who?”
Yet curiously, the modern mind, which finds authority so difficult, has no difficulty with authorship. Nobody questions an author’s right to edit his own work or keep it out of circulation or regard one of his books as much better than another. Yet this is pretty much what the Church’s authority concerning the canon of Scripture boils down to. For the Church, in the form of the Old Israel and the New, created, edited and published its written testimony, just as any other author creates, edits and publishes his autobiography. The only difference between the Church and a mere human author is that its authority to do so came from Jesus Christ, who told the apostles, “Whoever listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16) and who gave them, in turn, the authority to “appoint presbyters … in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commend them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.” (Acts 14:23). These presbyters or overseers (who came to be called “bishops” in English) are the ones who, by the authority vested in them by the apostles, eventually decided what books belong in Scripture. They did so in order that, as Paul commanded, they might “guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us” (2 Tm 1:14).
How then did the canon of Scripture come about? By scrutinizing the various books proposed as Scripture in light of what may be called the Standards of Fruits and Roots. The process went something like this:
In some cases, the Church has a clear memory of just who wrote a given book and can refer to this when a somebody tries to take away from the Tradition of Scripture by deleting Matthew, Mark and John (as the heretic Marcion wanted to). In other words, there is a Standard of Roots by which the Church weighs her canon. Likewise, when a gnostic tries to add the Gospel of Thomas to the Church’s written Tradition, the Church can point to the fact that, despite the apostolic name, the contents do not square with the Tradition of the Church as it is preserved by the bishops, so it must be a fake. In other words, there is also a Standard of Fruits. It is this dual standard of Roots and Fruits by which Scripture is known. The Church said, in essence, “Does the book 1) have a widespread and ancient tradition of apostolic origin and 2) square with the total Tradition preserved in the Church? If so, it’s Scripture.”
It was on this basis the Church eventually settled the question of the deuterocanon. For the churches founded by the apostles could trace the use of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament (which includes these books) back to their remotest origins. Therefore, the Church after the apostles simply reasoned, “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.”
These Root and Fruit standards are especially evident in the case of the letter to the Hebrews. There was controversy in the early Church over the canonicity of this book (as well as certain others) with some Fathers, especially in the west, rejecting Hebrews (in no small part because of its anonymity). Yet the Church eventually accepted it. Why? Because the Church finally discerned that it met the Roots and Fruits standards in light of Sacred Tradition.
The Church had long believed Hebrews reflected apostolic teaching. That is, it always met the Fruits standard. How then did it meet the Roots standard? Because there was an ancient tradition in the Church that the book originated either from St. Paul or one of his close associates. That tradition (at first better attested in the east than in the west), accounts for the slowness of certain western Fathers to accept the book. But the deep-rootedness of the tradition of Pauline authorship in the east eventually persuaded the whole Church.
Conversely, those books were rejected because they did not meet both the Root and Fruit standards of the Church’s Sacred Tradition. Thus, books like the Didache were not judged to meet the Root standard since their authors were not held to be close enough to the apostolic circle. And, of course, books which met neither the Root nor Fruit standards, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were rejected by the Church without hesitation.
In summary then, the Church canonized books because they were attested by apostolic tradition. The books we have in our Bibles (and the ones we don’t) were accepted or rejected according to whether they did or did not measure up to standards which were based entirely on Sacred Tradition and the divinely delegated authority of the Body of Christ.