For my write-up today on The Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constantine, I’ll highlight what Harry Gamble says on pages 212-213 about the formation of the New Testament.
“By the end of the second century the church at large held as its common scriptural resources, in addition to the scriptures of Judaism…the letters of Paul and a collection of four gospels. Paul’s letters were consistently valued and used, albeit in diverse editions, from the late first or early second century onward. The collection of four gospels, however, seems to have emerged only after the middle of the second century, yet it had taken hold by the early third century everywhere except in the east, where Tatian’s Diatesseron[, which sought to harmonize the four Gospels and combine them into a single narrative] rivalled it until the fifth century. In addition to these gospels and Paul’s letters, other documents had come into wide use, including Acts, I Peter, and I John, all of which were widely acknowledged and used in the third century. Other documents that were known and used, but enjoyed no similar consensus, included 2 Peter, Jude, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, 1 Clement and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Apocalypse of John (also known to English readers as the book of Revelation) was early and continuously appreciated in the west but attracted little interest in the east, whereas Hebrews was much valued in the east but virtually unknown in the west before the fourth century. There seems to have been only limited knowledge and hesitant use of 2 and 3 John and of James before the fourth century. The indeterminacy in the scope of Christian scriptures that persisted throughout the third century began to be resolved in the fourth century.”
I do not know on what Gamble is basing his narrative about the formation of the New Testament. Perhaps it’s based on the works (that made their way into the New Testament, that is) that patristic writings cite, or ancient references to what writings were used in church services. But Gamble’s model of canonization describes a bottom-up process: the church accepted for the canon the writings that were commonly used, with some exceptions (i.e., Revelation, Jude, etc.).
Even so-called heretics used Paul and some of the Gospels. Or, more accurately, according to Gamble, Irenaeus in the late second century criticized those who used a single Gospel rather than all four—-as the Ebionites used Matthew, Marcion used Luke, docetists used Mark, and Valentinians used John (Haer. 3.11.7-9). In the first part of the third century, however, there were manuscripts that contained multiple Gospels, whereas second century manuscripts had single Gospels. My impression is that the third century may have been a time when all four Gospels attained the wide-usage that made them canonized in the fourth century.