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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Retrospect

This suggested reconstruction has proceeded with the benefit of hindsight and a number of scholarly hypotheses. Although an account of growth almost automatically carries with it a sense of chronological development, in this case it is important to emphasize that not all early Christian communities will have trodden the same path through these same progressive stages. Some groups will have bypassed some stages, or seen this or that step as irrelevant to them. It is not necessary to conclude that all Christians will have arrived at the same climax of religious experience as is seen in the vision of Revelation.

The New Testament can be defined (as at the outset in this article) as an assemblage, or in other words ‘a collection of documents in diverse forms written by a number of different individuals both named and unnamed to an assortment of churches and individuals living in different areas, or with few or no hints as to their addressees, and for a variety of reasons’ (Achtemeier et al. 2001: 4). But the New Testament, viewed holistically, also ‘represents the collective experience and understanding of the Christian community during the formative years of its existence’ (Achtemeier et al. 2001: 608). So even if one begins by recognizing fragments of religious experience, it is almost inevitable that one will end up with the phenomenon of the church, its disciplines, doctrines, and ethics, and the canon of Scripture finally closed (see Chapter 43 below).

The story of the movement in the first centuries towards the canon of the New Testament has three particularly significant historical features, or catalysts, and three literary aspects. A collection of texts becomes self-limiting, and effectively closed, both to protect what is within the collection and to guard against unwelcome additions. The historical catalysts just mentioned are identified as, first, the existence in the first centuries of groups with alternative Christian philosophies, often labelled ‘Gnostic’; if their rationale is too different, they need to be held at a distance. Secondly, there is the influence, in the mid-second century, of Marcion, whose programme was to exclude both the Old Testament texts and any elements that echoed the Old within the New Testament. And thirdly there was a second-century movement known as Montanism which emphasized the elements of prophecy, continuing charismatic inspiration, and a revolutionary view of the future. The canon originated, at least in part, in reaction to these pressures within and without.

The three significant literary aspects concern the gospels, the epistles, and the other texts with apostolic associations. Towards the end of the second century, particularly as defended for symbolic reasons by the church father Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3. 1. 1; 3. 11. 8), the gospel texts, earlier referred to as the recollections or memoirs of the apostles, were seen as authoritative by virtue of their being four in number. At this stage other gospel texts are known to have existed. Secondly, a collection of letters has been assembled, believed to have been written to newly founded churches and other contacts by apostolic missionaries such as Paul. The significant aspect here is the way in which the Pauline letter collection achieves a primacy and is the model for future collections. Thirdly, the other texts (besides gospels and epistles) are included in the collection as well. The Acts of the Apostles fulfils a supportive function in relation to the letter collection: in both Paul is pre-eminent. Other essays, like Ephesians and Hebrews amplify the theological discussion. And the Apocalypse, or book of Revelation, from first to last is a disturbing presence in the collection, and is liable to rejection for reasons of language, Old Testament ethos, theology, or ethics. But for its champions, Revelation is the culmination of the church's self-understanding and the climax of the process of growth of the New Testament.

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