05 June 2013

The Canon of the New Testament


ThE books of the New testament were compiled at the end of the first century and the New Testament canon is consists of only 27 books. How the New Testement books were compiled? Who gathered them? and when? Why are we sure that the canon of the New Testament is consists of only 27 books?

Although in the first decades of the Church, after the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians relied on the gospel that being preached by the apostles, and on the Old Testament, but afterwards, the apostles and the disciples wrote the account of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ (called the Gospel), and epistles or letters.

There are authors who claim that before the writing of the books or letters that would become the New Testament, early Christians relied on “oral tradition” about Jesus’ words and deeds, and on the Old Testament.

“At first, Christians did not have any of the books contained in our New Testament. They depended therefore on the Old Testament, on oral tradition about Jesus’ words and deed, and on messages from God spoken by Christian prophets.”1

“Oral traditions” implies that the account of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ has passed on from generation to generation before committed in writings. We know that tradition” means “a long-established custom or belief, often that has been handed down from generation to generation.”

However, this was not the real case. The writer of Matthew and John were apostles, the eye-witnesses themselves, and the writer of Mark and Luke were disciples under the supervision of the apostles (contemporary of the apostles). Thus, it is wrong to say that the “Gospels” are “oral traditions” put in writing if those who wrote it were eye-witnesses themselves.

Actually, the apostles warn us about those not been written:

“Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.” (I Cor. 4:6, NKJV)

Thus, in the second-century onwards, the teachings of the apostles, and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ were already committed in writings. All were written in the first century AD. The Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament was written about 90-100 AD.

The New Testament Canon

The New Testament is consists of twenty-seven documents – five narrative records (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts), twenty-one epistles, and one book of Revelation. Long before these were recognized by any council, they were already recognized as authoritative or inspired by those for whom it was written:

“Long before the apostolic letters were recognized as elements in a canonical collection, they were recognized as authoritative by most of those for whom they were written; as we said before, authority is the necessary precedent of canonicity.”2

The Catholic Church claimed that their church councils set the canon of the New Testament. However, facts and evidences from the history of the New Testament canon prove that such was not the case.

Various councils of the Catholic Church that pronounced upon the subject of the New Testament canon were merely stating publicly what had been widely accepted by the Church for some time:

“To the authoritative bond in the bishop and to the authoritative belief of the creed, the canon, a listing of the volumes belonging to an authoritative book, came as reinforcement. People often err by thinking that the canon was set by church councils. Such was not the case, for the various church councils that pronounced upon the subject of the canon of the New Testament were merely accepted by the consciousness of the church for some time.” 3

It can be shown that from the New Testament itself that the New Testament books were well known by early Christians and copies were made and each locale churches having copies of these documents. Apostle Paul encouraged the locale churches to exchange letters:

“Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” (Col. 4:16, NKJV)

Apostle Peter refers to the letters of Paul as if they were perfectly familiar to his reader:

“Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight. 15And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; 16as also in all `his' epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as `they do' also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (II Peter 3:14-16, ASV)

The Epistle of Peter is a general epistle, addressed not only to a single congregation, but to a wider audience, if not to Christians everywhere.

The Collection of the New Testament Books

The next generations of ecclesiastical writers witnessed not only that these New Testament books exist, but that it were well-known and accepted. Moreover, they prove that the collection of these letters was done as early as the end of the first century AD.

The Collection of the Gospels

There was a movement about the end of the first century to gather the Gospels, and eventually, each church had all four in a corpus that was call the Gospel.

“But we have not yet a canon in the sense of a collection of these writings. Towards the end of the first century, however, we find the beginnings of a movement in this direction. Not long after the writing of the fourth Gospel, the four Gospels appear to have been brought together in one collection. Thus, whereas previously Rome had Mark’s Gospel, and Syria had Matthew’s, and a Gentile group had Luke’s, and Ephesus John’s, now each church had all four in a corpus which was call The Gospel (each of the components being distinguished by the additional words, According to Matthew, According to Mark, and so on).”4

The first reference to one of the canonical Gospels is to be found in the Didache that was said to be written in 100 AD or earlier.5

“The first reference to one of our canonical Gospels is to be found in the Didache, a little manual of church discipline from the end of the first century A.D. Here the writer warns the churches not to pray like the hypocrites ‘but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel’ (8:2) – a reference to the Lord’s Prayer.”6

A papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John was found dating from perhaps as early as 125 A.D. – the John Rylands Papyrus. Papias (140 AD) mentions the Gospels, such as Matthew, by name.

There were clear evidences that the four-fold Gospels were already collected and recognized even in the second century A.D. These are the following:

·       The attempt of Marcion to reduce the four to one by eliminating the three and maintaining Luke (c. 140 AD). Let us discuss Marcion in the latter part.

·       Tatian’s attempt to prepare a Gospel harmony in which he had blended the four Gospels into one, called Diasteron (c. 160 AD).

·       Irenaeus finds it necessary to defend the fourfold Gospels (c. 180 AD), clearly witness to the presence of the fourfold Gospel by the beginning of the second century.

Collection of other Documents of the New Testament

The collection of other documents of the New Testament started towards the end of the first century A.D.

“Towards the end of the first century, however, we find the beginnings of a movement in this direction. Not long after the writing of the fourth Gospel, the four Gospels appear to have been brought together in one collection…About the same time, or possibly a few years earlier, came a movement to gather together the letters which Paul had written to various churches and individuals, and thus a further collection began to circulate among the churches, bearing the title The Apostle (the various components being distinguished by the subheadings To the Romans, First to the Corinthians, and so on).”7

The Epistles of Paul were collected by the end of the first century AD, and it was suggested that the publication of the book of Acts “may have stimulated the collection of the letters of Paul.”

“Professor E.J.Goodspeed has suggested that the publication of Acts may have stimulated the collection of the letters of this great church planter, Paul. Be that as it may, there is considerable evidence that by the end of the first century the letters of Paul had been collected.” 8

The New Testament itself attests that Paul’s letters were being collected. Apostle Peter’s second general epistle (II Pet. 3:16) refers to the letters of Apostle Paul as if they were perfectly familiar to his readers. Peter confesses that there are difficult passages in them, which false teachers twist.

The letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, dated c.95 AD, mentioned that, “Take up the letter of the blessed Apostle Paul” (I Clement 46:1).

Thus, there are evidences that the letters of Paul were not only already been collected, but were widely known, widely circulated, and widely accepted from 100 A.D. onward.

“It is clear that by A.D. 100 Paul’s letters had been collected and were widely known and widely accepted.” 9

Evidences on The New Testament
Canon of 27 books

There are evidences that “Once the NT books were written, they were collected and eventually these twenty-seven books comprised the NT.” 10

It is a fact that there were apocryphal literatures proliferated in the second century. However, the early Christians have the capacity to recognize divine authority.

“The early Christians were not exceptionally intelligent people, but they did have the capacity to recognize divine authority when they saw it. And they judged wisely in distinguishing the canonical writings from the uncanonical  will be apparent to anyone who compares the New Testament with other early Christian literature.” 11

As mentioned, these 27 New Testament books were all written in the first century AD. The writers are all Christ’s known disciples: there are apostles (Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, James and Jude); and the two, even though they are not apostles but they are companions of the apostles and ministers of the first century Church (Mark and Luke).

“It is sometimes said that the criterion which the early Christians applied in deciding whether a book was to be regarded as canonical or not was that of apostolic authorship. Now, it is certain that apostolic authorship counted for very much.” 12

The Truncated Canon of Marcion (140 A.D.)

In 140 AD, Marcion, a man of wealth, had come to Rome from Pontus. The heretic Marcion taught that Christianity had been Judaized, and set himself the task of bringing the church back to what he thought was true Christianity. For Marcion, true Christianity is “Pauline” Christianity, and Apostle Paul as the only faithful apostle. 

Marcion also rejected the Old Testament. He rejected more than half of the books of the New Testament and set his own canon of the New Testament.

“In accordance with his views about the supersession of the Old Testament, he rejected the Bible of our Lord and the apostles and drew up a canon to take its place. This canon consisted of two sections – The Gospel and The Apostle. Marcion’s Gospel consisted of an expurgated edition of the Gospel of Luke, which he probably regarded at the least Jewish of the Gospels, as its author was a Gentile; his Apostle consisted of the Pauline letters (excluding those to Timothy and Titus). Even the books which he did accept as canonical Scripture were edited in accordance with what he believed to be pure Christian doctrine. No doubt he believed  that by this process of editing he was removing interpolations introduced by those who followed the teaching of the Twelve, as distinct from Paul, who in Marcion’s eyes was the only faithful apostle. Thus, anything even in Paul’s epistle which seemed to recognize the authority of the God of Israel or to identify him with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ was cut off; it could not, on Marcion’s premises, be genuine. All Old Testament references were likewise excised. And in accordance with his belief that Jesus was a supernatural being who appeared suddenly among men in the mere semblance of humanity, his Gospel began with the words: ‘In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, in the times of Pontius Pilate, Jesus came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught in the synagogue’. This statement is based on Luke 3:1; 4:31, but it deliberately omits Luke’s birth-narratives, the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, his genealogy (according to Marcion, he had no human descent), and his temptation.” 13

Marcion rejected the Old Testament, Matthew, Mark, John, Acts, First and Second Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, the Epistles of Peter, John, James and Jude, and the Revelation of John.

Take note that this proves that the twenty-seven books were already well-known and generally accepted by Christians throughout the whole Christendom during the early decades of the second century. Because, if not, it is unlikely that Marcion made a movement to reject these books if these books are already rejected or not yet accepted by “Christians.”

However, the churches did not give up the Old Testament, the other Gospels and apostolic books. This further proves that the other Gospels and apostolic books Marcion rejected were already acknowledged by the churches.

“Marcion’s followers formed quite an influential group for a considerable time, and looked like attracting many others from the orthodox churches. The church leaders saw the necessity of defining the canon of New Testament Scripture more explicitly by way of countering Marcion’s canon. It is not correct to say, as it sometimes said, that Marcion was the first to draw up a New Testament canon, and that the orthodox party thereupon drew up theirs as a reply to his. The canon was well on its way to taking clear shape before Marcion’s activity began. But his activity certainly provided the church leaders, especially in Rome, where he chiefly propagated his views, with an incentive to state the orthodox position regarding the canon more clearly. The main points of this position were that the canon  more clearly. The main point of this position were that the canon contained four Gospels, not one; thirteen Pauline epistles, not only ten; the book of Acts, which vindicated the apostolic commission of Paul, but also related something of the doings of other apostles, and thus refuted Marcion’s depreciation of those; and (in addition to the writings of Paul) writings of some other apostles and ‘apostolic men’.” 14

The response of the Church against Marcion’s rejection of the three Gospels and of other New Testament documents clearly witness to the general acceptance of the Church of the 27 books of the New Testament.

Other Witnesses of the New Testament

Canon of 27 books

There were other witnesses of the acceptance of these 27 New Testament books as canonical.

The Muratorian Fragment (170 AD)

An early list of the New Testament books that was drawn at Rome towards the end of the second century is called the Muratorian fragment: it include the Four Gospel, Acts, the Epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 and 2 John, and Revelation. He also included Revelation of Peter, and recommended the reading of Shepherd of Hermas but not to be included in the apostolic writings.

“An early list of the New Testament books, drawn up in the church at Rome towards the end of the second century, is called the Muratorian fragment, after the atiquarian, Cardinal L. A. Muratori, who discovered it in manuscript and published it in 1749. It is in great measure an orthodox counterblast to Marcion. The fragment is mutilated at the beginning, but seems to have mentioned Matthew and Mark, because it goes on to mention Luke as the ‘third’ Gospel; then it mentions John, and gives a curious account of the circumstances under which his Gospel was composed. Acts is next named, and called the ‘Acts of all he apostles’ – an obvious misnomer, but equally obviously a reminder that all the apostles were to be recognized, and not Paul only. Then it enumerates Paul’s nine letters to churches and four to individuals, Jude’s epistle, two epistles of John, and the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter. The Sheperd of Hermas (an allegory written by a member of the Roman church in the second century) is then said to be worthy to be read in a church but not to be included among the apostolic writings. Its character might have entitled it to a place among the prophetic writings, but its date was too recent for that to be possible.” 15

Irenaeus (180 AD)

Irenaeus (180 AD) acknowledges twenty-one or twenty-two of our twenty-seven books: Four Gospels, Acts, Epistles of Paul (except Philemon), I Peter, 1 and 2 John, and Revelation. Philemon was missing but it may be accidental. Even he omits Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter and 3 John, but it does not necessarily mean he rejects these books. He does not accept Shepherd of Hermas as Scripture. 16

Hippolytus (170-235)

Hippolytus (170-235), a pupil of Irenaeus, his New Testament closely resembles that of his teacher: accepted the Four Gospels, Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, 1 and 2 Peter, I John, and Revelation. Even though he knows the Shepherd of Hermas, the Revelation of Peter, the Acts of Paul, and many more, but does not include them.

Tertullian (c. 160-220)

Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) accepts the Four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, I Peter, I John, Jude, and Revelation. He condemned the Shepherd of Hermas.

Origen (c. 185-254)

Origen (c. 185-254 AD) attests that the Church has only four Gospels accepted the fourteen letters of Paul, Acts, 1 Peter and 1 John. Although he has difficulty of accepting the Pauline authorship of the Hebrews, but still ascribes it to Paul. The Revelation of John is accepted together with Shepherd of Hermas. For Origen, of the twenty-seven New Testament books, seven are disputed.

Eusebius (c. 260-340 A.D.)

Eusebius (c.260-340 AD), bishop of Caesarea and well-known Church historian, his New Testament include Four Gospels, Acts, Pauline epistles (including Hebrews), 1Peter, 1 John, and although with reservations, the Revelation of John. James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John are disputed books, not necessarily non-canonical for Eusebius. The books Eusebius rejects are the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Revelation of Peter, the Letter of Barnabas, the Didache, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Andrew, and others.

Athanasius (c.293-373 A.D.)

Athanasius (c. 293-373 A.D.), in his Festal letter written in 367 list 27 books of the New Testament: his New Testament begins with the Four Gospel, followed by Acts, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the fourteen epistles of Paul (including the Hebrews), and ends with the Revelation of John. While he permits the reading of Didache and Shepherd of Hermas, but he does not accept them as Scripture. Athanasius totally rejects the apocryphal books.

Issues Regarding the 27 Books
of the New Testament

The above clearly witnessing to the total acceptance of the twenty-two books of the New Testaments as canonical: the Four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen Pauline Epistles, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation of John. 

The other five books (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude) were also acknowledged although “disputed.” However, even if these five books were disputed these were not rejected.

From Muratorian Fragment to Tertullian represent the Western church. Generally speaking, the Western church accepted only twenty-two books of the New Testament by 200 A.D.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is not among the Pauline in the Western church, until the fourth century.

There were still questions regarding James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, but it does not necessarily mean the Western Church altogether reject those books.

The Western Church did not accept the letter to the Hebrews, while the Eastern Church includes it in the Pauline letters. The Western Church acknowledge Revelation of John, while the Eastern Church disputed it, especially after Dionysius, bishop op Alexandria, argued that it was not Johannine and therefore, not apostolic.

When the disputes regarding the Hebrews, the Revelation of John, and the seven General Epistles were solved?

“Through the interaction of Eastern and Western churches, however, the two branches of Christendom drew even in the matter of the disputed books. In the West, Hebrews came to be accepted, and in the East the Revelation of John found a secure place. The seven General Epistles were also accepted eventually.
“While there may have been uneasiness about several of the NT books for a long time, the major writings were accepted by almost all the Christians by the middle of the second century. In fact, the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul were accepted by the end of the first century.”17

Thus, generally, the Christians throughout the Christendom acknowledge the 27 books of the New Testament. These 27 books were already been collected even towards the end of the first century, and already widely circulated and widely accepted in the second century A.D.

Comparing these 27 New Testament books with other literature of that time, the Letter of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Revelation of Peter, and others, were only accepted by some persons or some churches, and perhaps recommended for reading, but generally rejected as canonical or Scripture. This was not the case with the 27 New Testament books. They were generally accepted only a few persons and some churches disputed or objected them.

The Councils

From evidences above, it prove that no council ever made a book of the New Testament canonical. These twenty-seven books were already collected and acknowledged long before such Church councils were convened. Thus, these councils simply affirmed those books already long been acknowledge since the end of the first century.

The Synod of Laodicea (365 A.D.)

The Synod of Laodicea in 365 A.D., forbade the reading of non-canonical books. This decision of the council clearly attests that everyone already knew which book were canonical and which were not.

The Council of Hippo (393 A.D.)

The Council of Hippo in 393 A.D. although laid down a list of 27 New Testament books, the same as our present New Testament list, but it only confirmed the 27 books of the New Testament already acknowledged and accepted long before the council of Hippo.

The Synod of Carthage (397 A.D.)

The Synod of Carthage in 397 A.D. declared that nothing should be read in the churches as divine scriptures except the canonical books, and then gave a list of Old and New Testament books, the same as ours today. Again, it was not this council that gave us the canon of the Old and New Testaments, but only confirmed what were already accepted long before this council occurred.

End Notes:

Chapter 1

1       Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the New Testament. 3rd ed. Manila, Philippines: OMF Literature Inc., 1994. p. 85
2       Bruce, F.F. The Books and the Parchment. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984. pp. 97-98
3       Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981. p. 118
4       Bruce, p. 98
5       Boer, Harry R., A Short History of the Early Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. p. 31
6       Ewert, David. A General Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990. p. 121
7       Bruce, p. 98
8       Ewert, p. 119
9       Barclay, W. The Making of the Bible. New York: Abingdon, 1961. p. 65
10        Ewert, p. 116
11        Bruce., pp. 101-102
12        Ibid., p. 101
13        Ibid, pp. 99-100
14        Ibid., p. 100
15        Ibid., pp. 100-101
16        Ewert, p. 126
17        Ibid., p. 181

SOURCE: Lopez, E. M. The Bible: Our Sacred Scripture, A General Introduction To The Bible. Quezon City, Philippines: 2010.

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