Bible Canon New Testament

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.
John 21:25

Formation of the NT

Christianity spread throughout the eastern empire by word of mouth. The apostles and the early missionaries walked the streets and preached the word of Christ. They were eye witnesses to the God’s saving events and bore their eye witness testimony in person, orally.

As the number and size of communities grew, the need for written communication increased. The earliest portions of the New Testament are the letters that circulated among these Churches from apostolic witnesses. Next came the Gospels that organized and told the basic story of Christ. The ending of John’s Gospel, quoted above, notes that these are just a small portion of what could be told about the ministry and message of Jesus. Throughout the Gospels and letters there is a clear understanding and use of Old Testament as scripture, but the understanding of these new books as the New Testament came later. The twenty-seven books we know as the New Testament were not the only works about Christ and the Christian message from this period. Many others were written and circulated as well. Only later was this list established as we know it today.

“ Besides the above (misrepresentations), they (Marcion) adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men, and of such as are ignorant of the scriptures of truth.”
Irenaeus Against Heresies 1.20

Driving these debates about scripture were new interpretations of the by Christian sects. Marcion rejected most of the NT and heavily edited the Gospel of Matthew to suit his theology. These theological controversies focused the Churches attention on the need for a defined canon of scripture.

“Our sacred books, that is, those of the New Covenant, are these: the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John; the fourteen Epistles of Paul; Epistles of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; two Epistles of Clement; and the Constitutions dedicated to you the bishops by me Clement, in eight books; … and the Acts of us the Apostles.”
Constitutions of the Apostles

The Debate

In debating what of the wide variety of books should be included in the canon of the NT the Fathers developed three basic criteria for acceptance:

  • Apostolic Source
  • Sound Doctrine
  • Universal Acceptance

Eusebius notes in his Church history written in 323 AD that this debate is raging. In this listing we see the debate divides the list into three categories, those accepted by all, those rejected by all and those still in dispute. This short quotation shows us that several of books in the New Testament were disputed at this time.

“ Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John, whether they belong to the Evangelist or to another person of the same name.”
Eusebius Church Histories

Creating the Canon

The impetus for the debate is the formation of rival Christian sects. Marcion, mentioned above, is rejected most of the Orthodox Christian scripture and message. He is also rejected the Old Testament as a whole. The Gnostic groups are interpreting the New Testament scriptures in different ways than the Orthodox and creating more literature to bolster these interpretations.

These are the primary reasons for the three criteria outlined above. The apostolic sources remove all the later writings. The sound doctrine principle rejects works which deny key tenets of the faith. And universal acceptance makes sure that a single geography in heresy will not take the Church at large with them.

“There are the four Gospels only, for the rest have false titles and are mischievous. The Manichaeans also wrote a Gospel according to Thomas, which being tinctured with the fragrance of the evangelic title corrupts the souls of the simple sort.”
Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures

One of the benefits of excluding works that are not apostolic was the removal of many post-apostolic gnostic literature. These expanded the theology preached by Christ in ways ultimately rejected by the Church. By requiring works be of apostolic origin, the Fathers and councils could save a lot of time by passing this more recent literature.

The downside of this exclusion was the removal from consideration of works we now refer to as the “Apostolic Fathers.” These are many second generation Christian literature in the true spirit of the New Testament and the Apostles. In fact, several books from this collection were in the New Testament canon for the Coptic & Ethiopian Churches. We even find two of them included in the early biblical codex Sinaiticus (fourth Century) and Alexandrinus (fifth century), both written in Egypt.

Sound doctrine is being formed in ecumenical councils at this same time. The Nicene formulation was from 325 AD. Here we see the beginnings of the process to ensure a sound universal faith guided by the Holy Spirit. At the same time there are councils that are attended by a majority of these heretical sects and put forth their doctrine. Here, the principle of universal acceptance keeps the Church on an even keel.

Marking the march to the close of the canon, Athanasius included our final list in his Pascal letter of 367 AD. This is the first listing we still have of the complete canon as we know it. He presents the complete list of all twenty-seven books of the NT as a closed canon. He underlines this fact after listing books with these words.

“ These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst maybe satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take any from these. ”
Athanasius Festal Letter 39

The debates on the final canon of the New Testament continued through the fourth century. But that time the final list was confirmed by councils of the Church in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). These settled the question of our New Testament canon.

Originally Posted June 27, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010