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What is the antilegomena?

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The antilegomena is a collection of Bible texts that were subject to a high level of skepticism while the canon of Scripture was being established. The word antilegomena literally means “spoken against” and was applied to those writings that were accepted by the majority of the early church but had more detractors than other books. Writings that were clearly seen as non-inspired or heretical were branded as such by the early church. Another group of writings, known as the homologumena, was recognized as inspired and enjoyed universal acceptance in the early church. The books classified as antilegomena were questioned in different ways and for different reasons than those that were rejected as non-canonical.

As the early church grew, it became important to distinguish between God’s Word and writings that were not God’s Word. In short, books were recognized as canonical if they were written by an apostle or under and apostle’s direction, positively explained true Christian doctrine, made some claim or connection to inspiration, were accepted by the doctrinally loyal churches, and/or were suitable for public reading. Using that criteria, the twenty-seven books of the modern New Testament quickly became accepted as the canon of Scripture.

However, seven of those twenty-seven books were subject to more debate than the others. Those seven were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Unlike the works that were rejected outright, these books contained no obvious disqualifiers. They did not present heresy, they were not clearly linked to a non-orthodox church, and so forth. Rather, each fell short in the minds of some early Christians, according to the criteria given above.

It must be emphasized that other categories of ancient writings, such as the pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha, were viewed in a completely different light as compared to the antilegomena. Even as the New Testament was being written, the church recognized the existence of false writings (2 Thessalonians 2:2). This explains the abundance of caution the church used in officially recognizing works as inspired. The antilegomena were less readily accepted, not because they were flawed but because the early church was exceedingly careful in what it endorsed as inspired text.

The book of Hebrews was considered antilegomena because it is technically anonymous. Other New Testament books either clearly state their author or can be traced directly to an apostle. The book of Hebrews does neither, although it matches all of the other criteria for the biblical canon.

The book of James has always been subject to controversy, mostly because of its complex discussion of the relationship between saving faith and good works. For this reason, some in the early church hesitated to accept it, and it was classified as one of the antilegomena.

Second Peter is easily the most heavily disputed book of the antilegomena. More than anything else, the differences in style between 1 Peter and 2 Peter led to debates over whether or not it was legitimate. Over time, mounting evidence won over the skeptics, and 2 Peter was acknowledged to be canonical.

The letters of 2 John and 3 John do not identify their authors as clearly as other New Testament texts. In particular, they use the term elder rather than apostle, which led to some doubt concerning authorship. This wording was not uncommon for the apostles, however, and the short letters of John’s were never doubted to the same extent as 2 Peter.

Jude is an interesting member of the antilegomena. Jude was questioned for making explicit references to non-inspired works. Parts of the book of Jude allude to stories told in the non-canonical The Assumption of Moses and the Book of Enoch. However, because Jude does not endorse those writings as Scripture (Jude merely uses them as examples to support his points), this controversy was eventually settled.

Revelation has the distinction of being the most persistently questioned of the antilegomena. Though it was never questioned to the same degree as 2 Peter, critics continued to express doubts about it long after other books of the antilegomena had been widely accepted. Revelation’s biggest stumbling block was that its symbolism was open to such wide interpretation. A few early sects attempted to use the book to justify bizarre doctrines, which made Revelation guilty by association in the eyes of some early church members.

Most books of the New Testament were accepted very soon after being written—the homologumena. Others—the antilegomena—were less readily accepted for various reasons. The extreme caution exercised by the early church led to these seven books being more heavily examined prior to their eventual acceptance into the canon of Scripture.

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This page last updated: January 7, 2022