The Formation of the New Testament
Why these twenty-seven books? As a pastor, this is a question that I get quite often. If we regard the New Testament is the "final authority in faith and life," we should have good reasons for doing so. In this essay, I lay out the basis for our understanding of why these books, and these books only, belong in the collection we call the "Word of God."
A Brief Word On Councils
Before we begin, I need to quickly disavow an error that is repeated in various forms by many different people—that the twenty-seven books of the NT were not "canonized" until the church councils of the fourth century AD. The most common claim is that this was at the Council of Nicea in 325. This is simply wrong. The primary purpose of the Council of Nicea was to address the Arian controversy regarding the divinity of Christ, and also the comparatively minor issues of the date of Easter and certain points of canon law. The first official church council to rule on the books of the New and Old Testaments was the Synod of Rome in 382.
Moreover, it is erroneous to think that there was no NT canon until it was declared to be so by a church council. First, Scripture bears greater authority than any church council, so it’s not as if any council could confer such a status on the NT writings. After all, we know that the church already regarded Paul’s letters as Scripture in the first century (e.g., 2 Pet 3:16). Were these churches wrong in doing so, simply because they hadn’t been declared such by an official ecumenical council? Second, the mere fact that certain books are regarded as Scripture implies that they are canonical, for what is canon but a list of books that are regarded as Scripture? Such lists existed long before either Nicea or the Synod of Rome. And even without actual lists, any church that has books that it holds to be Scripture has a “canon.” The church councils are the wrong place to look, if we are asking when the NT books were canonized. Rather, we should ask when the books that we call the New Testament were regarded as Scripture.
The New Testament's Perspective
The place to begin is in the New Testament writings themselves, where we can already see the development of a canonical awareness—an understanding that Scripture was once again being written, and that these writings bore the same divine authority as the Old Testament.
- In John 14:26 and 16:12–14, Jesus, speaking to his disciples in the upper room, tells them that they would not simply be recalling whatever they could about him and elaborating on it. Rather, they would be helped by the Spirit of God, who would teach them and help them to remember “all” that he had said to them, that they would be guided into “all truth” and into a knowledge of “the things that are to come,” and that the knowledge they would receive would be that which belongs to Jesus.
- In numerous places, Paul blatantly says that his proclamation is the Word of God (1 Cor 14:37; 2 Cor 13:2–3; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:18; 2 Thess 3:6; 4:15; 2 Pet 3:1–2). Here, Paul and Peter are writing at a time when most of the apostles were still alive. Therefore, while their writings were being received as Scripture, the majority of their teaching was delivered through what they preached. And so, when they write of things such as “the Word of God which you heard from us,” “the traditions received from us,” and “the commandment . . . through your apostles,” they are speaking of the apostolic preaching, which is accurately enshrined in their written Word.
- Of the passages mentioned in the previous paragraph, 1 Corinthians 14:37, 1 Thessalonians 4:8, and 2 Thessalonians 4:15 refer to the letters themselves, and not to merely oral teaching. The advantages of the written word were that it allowed them to communicate over long distances without having to travel, it gave a solid, permanent witness to what they had said, it allowed for copying and widespread distribution, and it preserved their teaching after their deaths.
- Hebrews opens with an affirmation that the revelation given in Jesus Christ is at least on par with (if not in some sense superior to) that which was given in the OT (Heb 1:1–2).
- First Peter 1:10–12 expresses the idea that the same spirit that inspired the prophets inspired the apostles.
- There are two places in which the NT authors affirm other NT books as Scripture. The first is 1 Timothy 5:18, where Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 alongside Luke 10:7, referring to both as “Scripture.”
- At the end of his second letter, Peter writes, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:14–16). Peter here calls Paul’s letters “Scripture” and lumps them in with the rest of what he takes to be written divine revelation, which probably includes other NT books as well.
These are snapshots that give us glimpses of how the early Christians were thinking about the books that came to be known as the New Testament. None of these passages seem to have been written in order to teach that we should regard these books as Scriptures. Rather, this seems to be mutually understood by both their writers and their recipients.
Evidence from the Early Church Fathers
As we move into the period of the early church fathers, we find a strong reverence for the authority of Jesus' apostles, as well as an understanding that many of the books of our NT bore this very authority.
- In AD 96, Clement of Rome wrote about how “the apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . So then, Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore, came of the will of God in good order” (1 Clem 42:1–2). Clement also urges his readers, the Corinthian church, to read Paul’s first letter to them, and quotes parts of the Sermon on the Mount, giving it equal authority to the OT (13:1–2). It has also been argued that Clement shows knowledge of Romans, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.
- Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote letters to seven churches during a visit to Rome (ca. 115 AD), quotes Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Thessalonians as authoritative.
- Polycarp, writing his Epistle to the Philippians in 107 AD, quotes the NT about 100 times, clearly giving it equal, if not greater, authority than the OT. He quotes or strongly alludes to Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 and 3 John. He even couples Ps 4:4 and Eph 4:26 together, calling them “these Scriptures” (12:4).
- Papias (60–130 AD) clearly viewed both Matthew and Mark as canonical.
- The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130) quotes Matthew with the formula “it is written."
From this, and other evidence, it seems rather clear that, although not collected into one larger canon (i.e., the New Testament), these books, as well as others in our NT canon, were circulated and read as Scripture.
It’s important to keep in mind, again, this is what we can reconstruct from the fragments left to us from history. The fact that other NT books might not be mentioned does not mean that they were not regarded as Scripture as well, any more than a Pastor’s use of, say, five books of the Bible in a given sermon would indicate that he only holds those five books to be canonical.
Evidence from Heretical Groups
Also from the second century, we know of several important heretical groups which, ironically, began to force the church to more sharply define which books bore the genuine mark of apostolic authority and which ones did not. The most glaring example of this is Marcion, a gnostic who held that Jesus came to save the world from the God of the OT, whom he saw as evil and inferior. He advocated a canon containing only Luke and ten of Paul’s letters, purged of references that paid high regard to the OT. This is actually the first canonical list that we know of, and its value for us is that attests to the acceptance of Luke and of the Pauline corpus among early Christians, even if we are speaking here of a heretical sect.
Another example of an important heretical movement were the Montanists, who followed the teachings of Montanus, a charismatic leader who claimed to be the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit and who, along with other so-called prophets and prophetesses, would enter into a trance-like state and declare what he and his followers believed to be the Word of God. Yet even among these heretics, the oracles of their leaders were not seen to bear the same authority as Scripture itself.
The gnostic work, Gospel of Truth, treats the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews, and Revelation as authoritative.
The ever-increasing number of early sub-Christian heretical movements, of which these are just some examples, pushed the church to more clearly define what was and what was not apostolic Scripture. The earliest written evidence of the orthodox’s response is the second-century Muratorian Canon (named after its finder), written in Rome, which lists all of our NT books except Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter (and possibly also 1 Peter—it’s omission seems to be a scribal error). It also contains the Apocalypse of Peter, which the author of the list expresses hesitations about, noting that it is not universally accepted (in contrast to the others). It should be noted that this document is fragmentary and its meaning is sometimes unclear.
Other Early Figures
Sometime between 170–85 AD, the Syrian church leader Tatian produced a harmony of the four canonical Gospels called the Diatessaron. For him, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the four authoritative sources on Jesus' life, despite other inferior so-called gospels that were circulating at this time.
Writing at about the same time, Irenaeus, who was a well-known bishop of Lungdunum in Gaul, and whose views therefore express what was mainstream among the orthodox, recognized twenty-two NT books as authoritative, with the exception of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John. It should be noted that Irenaeus did, however, include the Shepherd of Hermas. In his work, Against Heresies, he charges Marcion with the error of modifying Scripture, since the latter removed the OT, did not regard large portions of the New, and purged the remaining documents of whatever didn't conform to his beliefs. Here he also explicitly affirms the sole legitimacy of the four canonical gospels. (3.11.8). His contemporary, Terullian, used roughly the same books.
Origen, also writing at this time, has a more straightforward discussion of the issue, and labels the works also attested to in Irenaeus and Tertullian as “undisputed,” while noting the others to be less certain among some. He does, however, seem to view Hebrews, James, and Jude as Scripture (based on how he quotes them—Hebrews is quoted, apparently as Scripture, over 200 times). In fairness, it should be noted that Origen is also sympathetic to the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Acts of Paul, 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas.
Summary of the Early Years
Based on this and other evidence, here’s what we can say about the New Testament canon by 220 AD:
The Gospels: Universally accepted
Acts: Universally accepted
Paul: Universally accepted
Hebrews: Accepted in the East; not recognized in the West until the fourth century; it is noteworthy that the hesitancy is due to the fact that it is anonymous—authorship was an important criterion for the early church; they needed to know who wrote it!
James: Generally accepted
1 Peter: Universally accepted.
2 Peter: Unknown; possibly accepted in the Muratorian canon as the Apocalypse of Peter; it has been postulated that the reason the church expressed so much caution with respect to 2 Peter is because of the preponderance of Petrine forgeries that were being circulated.
1 John: Universally accepted
2 and 3 John: Disputed; may have been attached to 1 John.
Jude: Generally accepted.
Revelation: Generally accepted.
Thus, we have widespread acknowledgement of 23 of the 27 books of the NT. It is important to realize that everything significant that we believe as Christians can be well-established by these books. In fact, even if we only had the Gospels and Paul, we would have this. One might even go so far as to say that even if we only had one of the four Gospels, or one of Paul’s letters, the basic content of our faith—trust in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation before God—would still be established. This is not to say that the contested books were unimportant, but (and this is extremely important) we should not be duped into thinking that the only way that Christianity can be true is if all 66 books of the Bible (or even the 27 books of the NT) can be proven to be the Word of God. The truthfulness of who Jesus is, our sin predicament, who God is, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the primacy of faith in appropriating the salvific benefits of Jesus’ work, are in no ways in jeopardy if certain aspects of Scripture are called into question. Of course, we should love and treasure the Scriptures, and live by them; but if someone is in doubt about certain issues pertaining to the canon, he or she should not jump to the false conclusion that such doubts undermine the whole of Christianity.
It is also important to remember that most churches at this time were still heavily localized and autonomous. There was no governing body to officially declare what was and was not Scripture, which is why, at this time, we cannot speak of any official position of “the church.” Again, what we have are historical snapshots of what was taking place.
The Next Phase
Our impressions of these snapshots are confirmed as we continue to move into the next centuries of the church. Eusebius (ca. 260–340 AD), for example, confidently labels some books as homologoumena (“recognized books”) and others as antilegomena (“disputed books”). The former are comprised of the four Gospels, Acts, Paul, Hebrews (believing it to have been written by Paul), 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation (with some hesitation—there were doubts regarding its authorship that prevented universal acceptance; again, note the importance of authorship). The latter are comprised of two groups: Those books that are not universally recognized and should be regarded as Scripture (James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John) and those that also are not universally recognized but should not be regarded as Scripture (the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Didache, and Barnabas).
The first actual list that confidently corresponds exactly with our New Testaments is the thirty-ninth Festal Letter of Athanasius, written in 367 AD. Of these books, he writes, “Let no one add to these, nor take from these.”
In the West, the 27 books of our NT were officially recognized as the set and exclusive canon at the Synod of Rome in 382 AD. This ruling was upheld shortly after in subsequent councils, such as the synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). It should be noted that several churches adopted canons slightly different from the standard one accepted in the West and in the East.While the Ethiopian Orthodox Church recognizes our 27 books, it adds eight more.The Syrian Peshitta, on the other hand, excludes 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. These are exceptions, however, and obviously do not reflect mainstream Christian thought at any point in history.
Ultimately, we must see the recognition of the NT canon to be a function of the Holy Spirit’s role in guiding Christ’s church into all truth (John 16:13). In recognizing these books as canon, the church was doing just that—recognizing the authority that the books intrinsically possessed, as opposed to conferring them with authority that was the church’s to grant. The canon, in other words, is not an authoritative list of books; it is a list of authoritative books. The church did not make certain books canonical; it recognized them as possessing the apostolic character that qualified them as such. It is impressive indeed to consider that the canon is not something that was declared by an ecclesial hierarchy, but rather grew as a grassroots phenomenon among localized churches that saw the need to further define Scriptural authority in the face of heresy. In so doing it carried on the canonical trajectory already evident within the NT itself. And when formal councils eventually did weigh in on the matter, they did not do so by announcing which books they had decided were to be regarded as canon; all of them simply stated which books they had received as canonical.
Ultimately, the reason we accept the traditional canon of the New Testament is because we have confidence in the providence of God to give his church those books as authoritative Scripture which actually are authoritative Scripture. This is confirmed in our hearts when we read the NT, which is to be expected in light of what Jesus says regarding himself in John 10:2–5:
He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.
I am also reminded of the words of the unnamed disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our hearts burn within us when he spoke to us on the road?” (Luke 24:32)
There are, of course, other things that can be taken into consideration with respect to the NT canon. For example, we might speak of their early dates, and their origins in the apostolic era and, in many cases, from the apostles themselves. We may speak of their value as the primary sources of Jesus’ life and teaching, and of the history of the early church. We may speak of their inerrancy, and of the fact that no convincing errors are present in them (in my opinion, of course, as well as the opinions of many other very well-informed individuals). All in due time.
Does all this give us an airtight argument, whereby we have no choice but to accept the 27 books of the NT as God’s exclusive canon? No, it does not. But, having known the books fairly well for some years now, and having studied them, and having seen how they mesh together, and how sophisticated and solid their arguments are, and how well they interlock with the OT Scriptures, and how uniform their theology actually is, and, most of all, how God ministers to the hearts of his people and bears witness by his Spirit through them, we have every reason to believe that they are the Word of God. After all, if we believe in a God who created the universe, and who cares about human evil and seeks to do something about it, and who desires to communicate his truth to us, I know of no other candidate for special divine revelation that even comes close to the New Testament Scriptures (except, of course, for the Old Testament Scriptures!). Further, I know of no convincing intellectual reasons (historical or otherwise) that compel me to doubt their truthfulness. If anything, my investigations into alleged “contradictions” and factual “errors” in the Bible have only left me more impressed with the truthfulness of the biblical texts.
Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude (2nd ed; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 14–15.
The opinion of the Greek churches was solidified by acceptance of Athanasius’ letter.
These eight books are the Sirate Tsion, Tizaz, Gitsew, Abtilis, 1 and 2 Dominos, Clement, and Didascalia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church also accepts the OT apocryphal books.