One of the common assertions from radical skeptics these days is that our New Testament canon represents only a small slice of early Christianity, and people today should not “limit themselves” to only these texts. After all, they argue, there were many books in circulation during the early centuries of the Church. In fact, if you read some of the more wild conspiracy theories on the internet or published in various books from the pop-culture, you might get the impression there was some sort of convention or contest as to which books would go in the canon, and which books would be banned. However, all these modern assertions show an ignorance to what the cannon is, and how it came about. So in this post I would like to discuss the formation of the New Testament canon.
First, some might ask: What is the New Testament canon? The word “canon” is a transliteration of the Greek word, kanon, which means “the rule,” “the norm” or “the standard”. Therefore when applied to the New Testament, the term “canon” means a new collection of authoritative books that go along with the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. Further applied, the twenty seven books of the New Testament were found to be authoritative because of their self-evident worth. In other words, they became canonical because no one could stop them from becoming so.
To quote the late Bruce Metzger, widely regarded as a scholar among scholars, and highly respected by scholars of all stripes:
“The Church did not create the canon, but came to recognize, accept, affirm, and confirm the self-authenticating quality of certain documents that imposed themselves as such upon the Church.” (Metzger)
So how did the formation of the New Testament canon come about? In the time of Jesus’ ministry and to his earliest followers, who came to profess the Good News (Gospel) that Jesus was Christ and risen, the term “scriptures” referenced the books that we today would call the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). In spreading this Gospel, the Apostles came to write many letters to both the various communities of believers (house churches) spreading throughout the Mediterranean world, and to each other. Additionally, the four Gospel accounts were also recorded and written. All this within the first century AD, just decades after the formation of the Church. Note, the Church references the body of believers professing that Jesus was the Son of God, the Christ, who died for sin and was resurrected. However, by the end of the first century and into the early second century, these Apostolic writings and Gospels were also being used themselves in many communities and Churches as new scriptures to be read alongside the existing scriptures (OT).
The early Church Apostolic Fathers (those who new the Apostles & Elders) identified the four Gospels as being written by, i.e. according to, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Originally each was circulated untitled (i.e. The Gospel). The evidence shows that these four Gospels began to circulate among the churches together as a collection quite early in the second century, along with a collection of the Letters from the Apostle Paul. As referenced in a previous post, an anti-Semite named Marcion in the mid second century argued the Christian scriptures had been corrupted by Jewish influence and needed to be purged. He separated Luke from the other Christian Gospels along with ten letters of Paul, and then systematically removed all references to the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) and Jesus’ humanity (because he was a docetist). Marcion called this work “The Gospel and the Apostolikon”, which was more or less his own personal canon. Naturally the early Christian Fathers denounced him as a heretic for his views, tampering with the Christian texts, and also for rejecting the Hebrew Scriptures (OT). However, the whole affair pressed the issue for the early Church, and inspired them to respond by identifying an official list of the authoritative new sacred writings (scriptures) to be read on par with the Hebrew Scriptures (OT). In other words, a New Testament canon.
The earliest known canon of the Christian Church was composed in the second century. It is called the Muratorian Canon because the list was discovered in fragments by a man named Muratori. Scholars date the composition to 160-170 AD. The list included the Four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul, Jude, Revelation & the letters of John. Therefore, twenty-two books are listed as authoritative before the end of the second century. In the latter years of the second century, many early Church Fathers began to more explicitly discuss the canon (i.e. Iranaeus in 180 AD).
As the renowned scholar Bruce Metzger once observed:
“What is remarkable … is that, thought the fringes of the New Testament canon remained unsettled for centuries, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater parts of the New Testament was attained within the first two centuries among the very diverse and scattered congregations not only throughout the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia.” (Metzger)
So what “greater parts of the New Testament” did the early Church universally recognize? In the West it was the Four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul, 1st John & 1st Peter. In the East, the same twenty books plus Hebrews & Revelation. Therefore, twenty to twenty-two books of our New Testament were already accepted by the second century. Representing a recognized canon within the canon.
Now what were “the fringes of the New Testament canon” that remained unsettled for centuries? To a lesser extent Revelation & Hebrews; Hebrews due to its anonymous author & Revelation because it was a different genre from other John literature. The Letters of Jude, 2nd & 3rd John were often disputed in some circles because of their length. Specifically, at issue was the thinking that authoritative books should have more to say, i.e. these 3 Letters combined represent only 10 chapters. Concerning 2nd Peter, it was argued by some to be written in a different style than 1st Peter. The letter James was debated whether it was written by the Apostle, or someone else by the same name. Nevertheless, they were all read and had advocates within the early Church. Therefore, these issues continued to be discussed by the early Church going forward. So though the canon remained open (or unsettled) as the debates on the “fringes” continued for the next couple of centuries, the core was already well established and accepted. I should also note that in some places a small number of seemingly orthodox non-canonical books were favorably looked upon, i.e. various letters from Church Fathers of the early 2nd century, symbolic poems and the Protoevangelium. But despite their temporary localized status in places, such texts were widely excluded from discussions on the canon as they did not meet most of the criteria.
So what was the criteria discussed? First, the books must be Apostolic, i.e. written by either Apostles themselves, followers of Apostles, or those who were eyewitnesses to what they said and wrote. In other words, the document must be early, i.e. a 1st century witness. Second, the books must conform to the rule of faith or orthodoxy, i.e. they must be consistent with the basic Christian tradition that the Church recognized as being normal. Finally, they asked: Does the book have the continuous acceptance and usage by the Church at large?
After discussing these issues for many decades with this criteria in mind, which demonstrates the importance and thoughtfulness that went into these deliberations, the canon in the West became closed by the late fourth century . Meaning the New Testament consisting of our current twenty seven books was settled. However, in some parts of the East it still took until the fifth century (with few exceptions) for the canon to come into harmony with the west. Although it is important to note, that none of them added any new books — they simply continued to further dispute “the fringes” of the twenty seven canonical books in some corners.
As for many of these other books numerous modern skeptics like to cite, i.e. the gnostic writings. None of these texts were ever even considered, as they did not meet any of these criteria. They were never used in orthodox Christian circles, they were all known to be 2nd century or later writings, despite some of their forged titles they were all non-apostolic, and they were most certainly NOT orthodox in their beliefs. See my earlier posts on Gnosticism for what some of these heretical groups actually believed. Meanwhile the New Testament writings that have come down to us today reflect the testimony of the first generation Church, and very much depended on the testimony of Jesus’ own handpicked disciples. And to paraphrase a line from the Gospel of John, ‘we know (their) words to be true.’
That concludes my rather detached analytical history of how the New Testament canon came to pass. However, as a person of faith, that is of course not the complete story. Therefore, I will close with some very important observations.
As F.F. Bruce notes:
“The historic Christian belief is that the Holy Spirit, who controlled the writing of the individual books, also controlled their selection and collection, thus continuing to fulfill our Lord’s promise that he would guide his disciples ‘into all the truth.’” (Bruce)
And finally as the late Bruce Metzger notes:
“Neither religious nor artistic works really gain anything by having an official stamp put on them. If, for example, all the academies of music in the world were to unite in declaring Bach and Beethoven to be great musicians, we should reply, ‘Thank you for nothing; we knew that already.’ And what the musical public can recognize unaided, those with spiritual discernment in the early Church were able to recognize in the case of their sacred writings through what Calvin called the interior witness of the Holy Spirit. This … however, does not create the authority of Scripture (which exists already in its own right), but is the mean by which believers come to acknowledge that authority.” (Metzger)
In closing I can think of no better words than those. Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.