The Formation of the New Testament
In John 14:26, Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things, and remind them of what He Himself had told them. He would also guide them into all truth and tell them what was yet to come (16:13). Christians believe that what is now included in the New Testament is the written deposit of the fulfilment of these words of Christ.
For about two decades after the Cross, the message of Jesus was proclaimed orally. Then from the early 50s on, Paul’s letters began to appear. During the 60s, the three synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts were written, and by the end of the first century, when John wrote the Book of Revelation, all the books of the New Testament were completed.
As was the case with the books of the Old Testament prophets, the writings of Paul and the other apostles were immediately accepted as authoritative because the authors were recognized as authentic spokesmen for God. And they themselves were conscious of the fact that they were proclaiming God’s message, not merely their own opinions. In 2 Peter 3:15 and 16, Peter equates Paul’s writings with the Scriptures; Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 follows up the formula “Scripture says” with a quote from Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, thereby equating the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures with the New Testament Gospel. And in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul commends the Christians in Thessalonica for accepting his words as “the Word of God” (NKJV).1
In the formation of the New Testament canon, which took place over a period of about 250 years, apostolic authorship became the primary criterion for acceptance of individual books into the canon. At times, this criterion was applied somewhat loosely. In the case of Mark, the “private secretary” of Peter, for example, his Gospel was seen as a record of Peter’s teaching. This is based on the statement of Papias (c. 60–c. 130), the bishop of Hierapolis, who wrote, “Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s.”2
In the case of Luke’s Gospel, its author was early identified with “Luke, the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14), who was a travelling companion of Paul (Acts 16:10). Because of his close association with Paul it seems that “something of Paul’s apostolic authority rubbed off on him.”3
Other tests of canonicity included antiquity—the book had to belong to the apostolic age; orthodoxy—it had to be in harmony with the rest of the New Testament; and catholicity—it had to be accepted by the greater part of the Christian Church. Above all, however, the inspiration of the books had to be acknowledged by the churches.
At the end of the first century, all the books of the New Testament were in existence as the possession of particular churches or individuals to whom they were addressed. Sometime after Paul’s death, a collection of his letters bearing the title The Apostle began to circulate among the churches. Soon after the fourth Gospel was completed, the four Gospels were brought together in another collection called The Gospels. Thus, during the second century, most churches came to possess and acknowledge a collection of inspired books that included the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, 13 of Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, and 1 John.
Reasons for the New Testament Canon
The need to define clearly the New Testament canon came through the appearance of certain heretics and the challenge of spurious writings claiming apostolic authority. Marcion (80-160 A.D.), for example, a wealthy ship owner from Sinope in Asia Minor, came to Rome in 140, stirred up trouble in the church, was disfellowshipped, and organized his followers into a rival movement to orthodox Christianity. His churches were numerous and influential throughout the Roman Empire for more than a century and caused strife and dissension in the churches. Marcion rejected the Old Testament and drew up a canon that consisted only of edited versions of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters (he excluded the letters to Timothy and Titus). Through the editing he removed what he believed were interpolations introduced by those who followed the12 apostles rather than Paul, “who in Marcion’s eyes was the only faithful apostle.”4
The second century also saw the appearance of a growing number of Christian writings that claimed to relate unknown details about Christ and the apostles. Many of these books were written by Gnostics, who stressed salvation through secret knowledge. A number of “infancy” gospels supplied details from the hidden years of Christ’s life. Numerous books of Acts related the deeds of Peter, Paul, John, and most of the other apostles, and several apocalypses described accounts of personally conducted tours of heaven and hell by the apostles.
In view of these developments, church leaders were forced to define the canon of the New Testament more explicitly. They began to investigate the evidence upon which any book was considered inspired and authoritative, and to guard against spurious Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses, they published lists of those books known to have been written by the apostles or their associates.
History of the Canon
The earliest extant list of New Testament books, published in 1740 in Milan, comes from c. 170 and is called the Muratorian Fragment. It is named after Cardinal L. A. Muratori (1672-1750), the antiquarian, who discovered the manuscript in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. The beginning and ending of this manuscript are missing, but it mentions Luke as the third Gospel (Matthew and Mark most likely being the first and second) followed by John and Acts. Then it enumerates 13 letters of Paul, Jude’s Epistle, two letters of John, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Apocalypses of John and Peter.
Other books are referred to as not belonging to the apostolic writings, for example, The Shepherd of Hermas and the forged letter of Paul to the Laodiceans. It is interesting to note that the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter are accepted as inspired, though eventually they did not become part of the New Testament canon. This indicates that there was a period of sifting and testing during which some books were accepted in some places, but rejected or accepted much later in others. For example, the Eastern churches accepted Hebrews as the work of Paul quite early, while in the West it took almost another 200 years before the book was admitted into the canon. In the case of the Book of Revelation, the situation was reversed. It was accepted as canonical by the Western churches by the end of the second century, but consistently rejected by many in the East. It was not listed among the canonical books at the Council of Laodicea (sometime between 340 and 380) and was subsequently omitted from the Peshitta, the official Bible of Syriac-speaking Christians.
During the third and part of the fourth century, the sifting and testing of books continued. Some came to be acknowledged as canonical, others as apocryphal. Eusebius (265–339 A.D.), the bishop of Caesarea and “Father of Church History,” made a careful study of the usage of these books in the church and reported that 22 were generally acknowledged as canonical, namely the four Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul (including Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation (though some still rejected it). The other five (James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John) were still disputed.
During the latter half of the fourth century, the New Testament canon received its full and final form. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, in 367, to eliminate the use of certain apocryphal books in church, listed in his Easter Letter the 27 books of the New Testament. “These are fountains of salvation,” he wrote, “that they who thirst may be 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 ought from these.”5 Thus, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so we believe, the 27 books in the New Testament were recognized as authoritative (canonical) by the church at large.
Thirty years later, the Third Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) accepted the list of the 27 books as canonical and decreed that “nothing should be read in church under the name of the divine scriptures except the canonical writings.”6 With this Third Council of Carthage, the canon assumed permanently the form and content as it exists to this day.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C. F. Cruse, trans. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), III. 39.14.
3. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 257.
4. __________, The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991), p. 99.
5. Athanasius, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), vol. 4, p. 552.
6. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, op. cit., p. 233.