The Development of the New Testament Canon

The New Testament Canon is the collection of 27 books by the first century Christian Church. These writings are recognized within Orthodox Christianity as “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) Scripture written down by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). The word “canon” is defined as a “standard”[1], and to Christians, “These writings, as ‘canon’, are normative for every aspect of the life of the Church, be it creed, worship, or its life in the world”.[2] The earliest list of these writings is found in the Muratorian Canon (c. A.D. 170), which lists all the New Testament books except for Hebrews James, and the letters of Peter.[3] Although the first recognition of the current complete New Testament Canon was in A.D. 367, there is much historical evidence to acknowledge that the vast majority of these writings were not only widely circulated but also used within the early Christian church as authoritative Scripture much in the same way they are today.[4] Though there were controversial disputes over a few books that would eventually be accepted as authoritative, the need for the development of the Canon did not arise out of this situation but rather as a need to establish a standard of teaching to defend against heretical teaching within the Christian Church. This article will discuss the development of the New Testament Canon and the controversies and determinations that were made in the universal agreement of the final books as they are accepted today.

In recognizing the New Testament Canon there is a need to first recognize the importance of the Old Testament Canon and its influence. These two canons collectively make up the Holy Bible as is used in Christianity but to the first disciples and to the Lord himself, the Old Testament was their Scripture. Jesus taught regularly from the Old Testament and considered these writings as the words of God. In addition, the majority of the New Testament is either directly or indirectly related to the Old Testament in doctrine and teaching as Christ and the New Covenant are not seen to remove the Old Testament from authority but rather they are the fulfillment and the revealing of the mystery of God’s Word within it. On this point, F. F. Bruce has stated, “According to the Acts of the Apostles, the early preaching of the gospel to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles was regularly marked by the appeal to the fulfillment of Old Testament scripture in the work of Jesus…Thanks to the illumination thrown on them by their fulfillment in Christ, the ancient scriptures became a new and meaningful book to the early Christians”.[5] It was a point of importance that no new writing would be included within the New Testament Canon that did not coincide with this fulfillment of Old Testament doctrine in the person of Jesus Christ as God.[6]

In direct opposition to the Old Testament stood the beliefs of Marcion who claimed that the creator God of Genesis was not the same loving Father God of Jesus Christ. “Marcion’s central thesis was that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law”.[7] According to Marcion (c. 144), it was the Apostle Paul who understood this doctrine and so in his attempt to establish an early New Testament Canon he provided a list of approved writings which included: an edited version of the Gospel of Luke, Galatians, I & II Corinthians, Romans, I & II Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians.[8] In addition to the rejection of the Old Testament, Marcion followed a Gnostic doctrine that denied Jesus came in the flesh. To Marcion, “Jesus Christ was not the Messiah predicted in the OT but a revelation of the God of love. This Christ was not born but simply appeared; he only seemed to suffer and he raised himself from the dead. The original disciples of Jesus had Judaized, so the Father called Paul to restore the true gospel”.[9] The teachings of Marcion were condemned as heretical and while his canon provided a catalogue of authoritative and accepted writings it was his omission of the other writings, namely the Gospels, that was in conflict with the Early Church view of accepted Scripture. The heretical teachings of Marcion became so popular that the Early Church Apologist, Tertullian, felt it necessary to publicly respond in his book Against Marcion. Tertullian refuted the heretical teachings of the Marcionites, categorizing them as antichrists because of their denying that Christ had come in the flesh born incarnate.[10] The need to differentiate between Christian writings that were truly authoritative and those that were not was becoming an important issue in order to protect against false teaching but equally important to instruct in orthodox doctrine.

The battle against heresy would play an important part in the development of the New Testament Canon and in the center of this battle during the fourth century was the well-respected theologian and pastor, Athanasius. Athanasius fought against Arianism, a heresy that denied the divinity of Christ, at the council of Nicaea in 325. “The council affirmed that the Son of God was ‘of one substance with the Father’, which means that both share alike in the fundamental nature of deity. After the council concluded, Athanasius returned with his bishop to Alexandria and continued to work with him in establishing the faith that had been defined at Nicaea”.[11] Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria from 328-373, in which during this time he wrote 45 Festal Letters dealing with church issues of importance. In his 39th Festal Letter, Athanasius outlined the New Testament Canon as the same 27 books found in the Christian Bible today.[12] Although a council did not yet officially approve this list it is considered that Athanasius’ canon “may reflect the Council of Nicea”.[13]

As the earliest church councils focused mostly on the nature of Jesus Christ as both divine and human, it would eventually become the ruling of these councils that would authorize the New Testament Canon. The Council of Hippo, in 393, was the first to officially establish the canon of scripture and this enactment would be “repeated as Canon 47 of the Third Council of Carthage” in 397.[14] As Christianity was growing, this important development would enable the Church to codify the authoritative writings of the Apostles and help in defending against heretical teachings while providing a fixed standard of approved doctrine. Though these councils would serve as officiates of the determinate New Testament, they operated in confirming officially what writings had already been established as Scripture. F. F. Bruce explains:

One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa-at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397-but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.[15]

In establishing the New Testament Canon the apocryphal books that were not accepted were left in either a position of, beneficial but not Scripture, or in certain cases heretical. Of the latter grouping, the Gospel of Thomas is considered a spurious gnostic representation of Jesus’ secret teachings. Craig Evans has noted that the Gospel of Thomas “could very well be a collage of New Testament and apocryphal materials that have been interpreted, often allegorically, in such a way as to advance second- and third-century mystical or gnostic ideas. Moreover, the traditions contained in Thomas hardly reflect a setting that predates the writings of the New Testament”.[16] Similarly, the Gospel of Mary is seen to have secret gnostic teaching that “reflect gnostic mythology in its description of the ascent of the soul and the naming of the powers that need to be overcome by passwords”.[17] Both of these apocryphal books are known to be of late dating and not written by the named authors. In the rejection of these gospels the Church would establish what the real writings of the Apostles were and what were counterfeit representations of Christ’s teachings.

The development of the New Testament Canon was necessary for establishing an approved catalogue of apostolic writings. The canon is considered, by the Christian Church, as God-breathed Scripture, and “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). In order to defend against heresy and provide a unified collection by which all churches could establish doctrine and harmony, the canon has served its purpose as the authoritative revelation of God to man. While there have been disputes over other writings and their worth, an assessment of the early historical acceptance of the current New Testament has provided a confidence that today the Church is reading, teaching, and correcting doctrine using the same words that were used among the earliest Christians.

[1] Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003), “Canon”.

[2] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 601. NT New Testament.

[3] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1133.

[4] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Wilder Publications, 2010), Kindle Locations 361-366.

[5] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture. (Intervarsity Press, 2010), Kindle Locations 777-787.

[6] Ibid, 4022.

[7] Cross, 1040.

[8] Ibid, 1040.

[9] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 735.

[10] Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers) Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2009), Kindle Locations 18059-18060.

[11] Elwell, 111.

[12] Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 3077.

[13] John D. Barry, “New Testament, Title Of,” ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

[14] Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 3468.

[15] Bruce, The New Testament Documents, 361-366.

[16] Craig A. Evans & Emanuel Tov. Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), Kindle Location 1356.

[17] Alex Ramos, “Apocryphal Gospels,” ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

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