The Canonicity of the New Testament

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”


Often when I try to explain to someone that God inspired holy men to pen down the message He desired to communicate, I try to reason that God could have used any instrument He wanted to accomplish this.  He could have used animals in some way.  Or He could have written the gospel in the clouds, or spoken audibly so we can hear, or any other imaginable way.  After all, He is God; He can do whatever He wants.  But instead He chose to have His word written down through fallible man in order to communicate the most important message known to man.  Being God, He simply inspired and breathed His word into specific individual men of God who had different personalities, lives, backgrounds, talents, gifts, characters, and walks of life, all who lived in different areas and sometimes on different continents.  Scripture stands the test of time, grammar, literary integrity, persecution, and the most intense scrutiny known to man.  If there were one thing in this world that is guided completely with the full protection of God it would have to be His word—the Holy Bible.  Though there is a collection of what is called the Old Testament canon in which the nation of Israel universally accepted as God’s spoken word, there is also what is called the New Testament canon.  These two constitute the Bible as a whole.  The New Testament canon is what I want to discuss: some historical background, by whom and how it was compiled, what determines true scripture, and the reliability of the scriptures.

The New Testament is divided into twenty-seven books. There are a total of twelve authors of the New Testament.  Four of these books, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are called the gospels; the book of Acts is the history of the early church; one is prophetic in nature looking forward to the return of Christ and the judgment that is to come on the world, Revelation; thirteen were written by the apostle Paul known as the Pauline Epistles, four of which are known as the Pastoral Epistles because they were written specifically to certain pastors; one is written to the Hebrews by an unknown author; and the remaining seven books written by the apostles Peter, James, Jude, and John are known as the General Epistles.  These twenty-seven books compile the New Testament canon. Now, this collection of twenty-seven books were not universally recognized as established canon until the end of the fourth century. However, the majority were recognized as authoritative for the church well within the first century. If they were not then they would not have been well circulated and read avidly within the church. The New Testament, as we know it today, was already in existence before the official establishment of the canon.  For, it is a well know fact that by the close of the first century, within seventy years of the Lord’s resurrection and ascension, the letters that compile the New Testament were written, circulated within the churches throughout the known world, and carried about by the apostles and early church Fathers.  At the very beginning of Church history there was a wide recognition of the canonical books. But before discussing how the canon came to be, it is vital to be familiar with some of the historical background that helped shape the events leading to the canonizing of the New Testament.

Enter in a fellow by the name of Marcion (c. 144). A rich sea farer, son of a bishop, who became swayed by the gnostic heresy as a disciple of a gnostic propagator, Cerdo. He claimed the God of the Old Testament was altogether different from the God of the New Testament, the Father of Jesus Christ. Marcion declared that the God of Judaism was a very strict and condemning God, while the God of the New Testament was full of grace and mercy. He utterly rejected the Old Testament and wanted to distance Christianity as much as possible from Judaism.  To briefly survey what just a few of the church fathers thought about and wrote against Marcion, we can see how his errors were widely recognized. Justin the Martyr wrote, “And, as we said before, the devils put forward Marcion of Pontus, who is even now teaching men to deny that God is the maker of all things in heaven and on earth, and that the Christ predicted by the prophets is His Son, and preaches another god besides the Creator of all, and likewise another son. And this man many have believed, as if he alone knew the truth, and laugh at us, though they have no proof of what they say, but are carried away irrationally as lambs by a wolf, and become the prey of atheistical doctrines, and of devils.” Tertullian wrote an astonishing five large books and a handful of other treatise against Marcion and the Marcionites utterly condemning them. Hippolytus of Rome, another church father, analyzed and utterly condemned Marcion and his heresies in book seven of A Refutation Against All Heresies. Irenaeus records the instance when Polycarp and Marcion met one day and Marcion asked, “‘Dont you recognize me?’ [Polycarp] replied, ‘I do indeed: I recognize the firstborn of Satan!” This is not even the fraction of what was written against him, but it is not hard to get the picture.

Apart from his grave theological sin, Marcion is notorious for forming his own new testament based strictly upon Paul and a mutilated version of Luke’s Gospel. Irenaeus, in book one of his extensive work Against Heresies wrote, “Besides this, he mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father. He likewise persuaded his disciples that he himself was more worthy of credit than are those apostles who have handed down the Gospel to us, furnishing them not with the Gospel, but merely a fragment of it. In like manner, too, he dismembered the Epistles of Paul, removing all that is said by the apostle respecting that God who made the world, to the effect that He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also those passages from the prophetical writings which the apostle quotes, in order to teach us that they announced beforehand the coming of the Lord.” It is clear that as he was selective of which letters to include in his collection, that he was not, as it were, some kind of forerunner of determining the New Testament canon. If so, we would have to be suspicious of what we deem as scripture, since he was a blatant gnostic heretic. When one reads the history of Marcion, his heresies, and the critiques of the church fathers, then it becomes obvious that he was merely being selective for the purpose of spreading heresy rather than aiding in constructing a true canon. Thus we can conclude, as J.N.D Kelly does,  that “It is altogether more probable, therefore, that when he formulated his Apostolicum, as when he singled out the Third Gopsel, Marcion was revising a list of books currently in use in the Church than proposing such a list for the first time.” Hence, noting Marcion’s canon is only significant because it is direct evidence that the entirety of the would-be scriptures were already in existence prior to the official date of canonization in 397.

In addition to the Marcion heresy and his patch-work of a canon, the winds blew in the self-proclaimed prophets called the Montanists. Founded by Montanus of Phrygia, a contemporary of Marcion, this group claimed their prophetic, first person utterances of the Spirit were “authoritative”, on par with or better than the scriptures, and even replacing the teachings of the Apostles and of Christ Himself. Unlike the prophets of old who signified it was The Lord they were speaking for by the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord” (and were actually speaking for the Lord), Montanism allowed for them to “[describe] themselves as possessed by God and [speak] in His person, ‘I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete,’ and ‘I am the Lord God, who have descended into to man’, and “neither an angel, nor an ambassador, but I, the Lord, the Father, am come” In Eusebius’ chronicle of the The Church History, he notes that Apollonarius did not mince words in his treatise against these heretics. He describes Montanus’ prophesying in this way, “He began raving, chattering, and speaking nonsense, prophesying contrary to the church tradition and custom from the beginning. Of those who heard his bastard utterances, some were angry, considering him possessed by a demon and a spirit of error in disturbing the populace.” With these first person utterances, “prophetic” declarations were made such as “The spirit of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” Montanus declared: “The Lord hath sent me as the chooser, the revealer, the interpreter of this labor, this promise, and this covenant, being forced, willingly or unwillingly, to learn the gnosis of God.” Contrast that with what the apostle Peter wrote in his second epistle: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The apostle John tells us to test the spirits: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone into the world.” As Apollonarius continued in his account of Montanus and his followers prophesying in that particular village in Phrygia, it shows that these people were not of the same spirit as the Lord. As a majority of the believers began to inquire about their prophecies they began to reject this strange spirit. Thus Montanism began to lose its grip on the people. It was at this point that the “prophets” under the inspiration of the demonic spirit went too far in instructing them to blaspheme the Church. This was too apparent that the Montanists were heretical and were then excommunicated.

It is worth noting both Marcion and Montanus and their heresies because they acted as a couple of goads in the hand of God to prod the church into formulating a fixed set of writings that the church as a whole could rely on as authoritative. This became a turning point in constructing the New Testament canon. “From now onwards, therefore, it became a matter of immense concern to the Church that the New Testament, as it was coming to be called, should be credited with the right number of books, and the right books.” Not only that, but the intense persecution under the Roman Empire undoubtedly played a role into knowing which writing were worth dying for. It would be beneficial knowing, if investigated by a Roman officer or accused by an unbeliever, which writing you had in your possession could be easily disposed of or not. For instance, if a person had the gospel of Peter and they knew it was not equal to the gospel of Mark, then there would be no problem with destroying it. On the other hand, the certainty of knowing what was an authoritative writing would give a person courage to bear the brunt of persecution.

It took the above historical events, people, and heresies to force church leaders to gather in councils to determine the canon. Prior to an official announcement of what writings were to be accepted there exists the oldest composition of canonical scriptures known as the Muratorian canon/fragment dating between c.170 A.D. This canon included twenty-three books with the exclusion of  Hebrews, James, and one epistle of John. (See Table 1.1) The significance of the Muratorian canon was that it recognized the core of the canon in 170 A.D.! This is much earlier than those who believe the canon was abstractly thrown together in the fifth century. This is a substantial amount of agreement by a very large group of people over very controversial subjects to which books were thought of as legitimate. As demonstrated above, the scriptures in consideration were already in heavy circulation and well known to both the church and unbelievers. (The reason I say unbelievers is because the heretics were not believers and at best could only mimic what was already extant at that time). The Muratorian fragment further helped with identifying and discovering the divine authority of scripture. And it gives historians and theologians today assurance to the reliability of the established canon.

There are many natural laws in the universe that are in existence whether or not we know they are or whether or not we understand them completely.  The fact is they exist outside of human agency, invention, or authority.  When Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity it is not like he invented gravity, he just discovered it. The law existed; he discovered it.  In my research I learned that this law of discovery is the same with the canonicity of scripture.  Dr. Norman Geisler stated, “It is God who regulated the canon; man merely recognized the divine authority God gave to it. God determined the canon, and man discovered it.” Therefore, we can think of it as a law in the universe that exists and is waiting for man to discover it.  In this case, the canon of scripture has been discovered and godly men in the church had recognized it as such.  It was only a matter of time and circumstances until the compiling of the New Testament took place as it was universally accepted.  With that said, man did not merely decide which books to put in the Bible, he discovered the canon by recognizing the divine authority in each of the books.

Just as scientists have tools and methods to test hypotheses, so the Church leaders of the early church had standards by which they determined what books were to be considered as scripture.  In my research I learned there were roughly five rules they used for determining canonicity.  These rules were: 1. Apostolicity.  When considering New Testament scripture, they decided whether a letter was written by an apostle or by someone of close association to that apostle.  This ensured authority.  An example of this would be Mark writing for Peter, or Paul quoting Luke’s gospel and Peter affirming Paul’s apostleship, and vice versa. 2.  Spiritual Content.  They asked whether the content was spiritually edifying and could be used “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” as 2 Timothy 3:16 states.  3.  Doctrinal Soundness.  During that time, the heretical teachings floating around would contradict widely accepted orthodox doctrine.  When testing a writing, they would determine if its teaching agreed with known and accepted concrete doctrines.  If it did not then they would toss it out.  4.  Usage.  As the apostles wrote their epistles, they commanded that their letters be circulated and read among local churches throughout the known world.  Also, whether the Church Fathers quoted the letter was heavily considered.  5.  Divine Inspiration.  Possibly the greatest test was whether or not the letter showed evidence of divine inspiration.  For instance, Paul was given the revelation of the uniqueness of the Church as both Jews and Gentiles are brought together and unified in one body.  This was not realized until God gave him this revelation in Ephesians 2:14-18 and 3:14-21. In addition to these five rules, one more standard considered was whether the writing had a prophetic element. Does the prophecy mentioned agree with other prophecies within other portions of Scripture (i.e. Christ’s Second Coming, the beast of Daniel and Revelation, the destruction of Satan, etc.)? These were the basic standards by which the New Testament writings were determined to be canon or not.  As these standards were used, the writings were placed under heavy scrutiny, prayer, council, and consideration. Through these holy men of God, the Holy Spirit wove together His chosen books that would serve to edify the church and instruct sinners in the Way.

Church authorities refer to Athanasius’ Easter Letter in year 367 as the official document listing all the twenty-seven books we have today in our New Testament. At the close of the fourth century the Council of Carthage established the canonical New Testament in Canon 24. Anathasius’ letter in 367 A.D., the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage, some thirty years later, helped solidify what was to be called the New Testament canon.

When the Church leaders applied these tests to the various letters there came about a list of New Testament Apocrypha that was collectively rejected and excluded from the canon.  New Testament Apocrypha included The Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas, The Epistle to the Corinthians, Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache Teaching of the Twelve, Epistle to the Laodiceans, Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, and the Seven Epistles of Ignatius among many others.  These are some but not all of the books that were rejected during the canonization of the New Testament.  These writings were rejected because they failed to meet up to the criterion listed above.  Eusebius of Caesarea shares his conviction on the non-canonical (apocryphal) writings, “Writings published by heretics under the names of the apostles, such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and others, or the Acts of Andrew, John, and other apostles have never been cited by any in the succession of the church writers. The type of phraseology used contrasts with apostolic style, and the opinions and thrusts of their contents are so dissonant from true orthodoxy that they show themselves to be forgeries of heretics. Accordingly, they ought not be reckoned even among the spurious books but discarded as impious and absurd.” So, when the objection is made, “But what about the Gospel of Thomas? Or The Gospel of Judas? Why weren’t those included? See, the church leaders were partial to the books that fit their views!”, one can see this is hardly the case.

Seeing what people, heresies, circumstances and methods God used to help establish the canon, we can turn to the reliability of the text we hold in our hands today. Before looking at the religious writings, it might be a good time to contrast them with extra-biblical works well known to the world. It is astonishing to realize the amount of time elapsed from when the person lived and wrote their work to the date of the first copy and how accurate it is known to be. Let’s consider some of these people and their writings: Plato (427-347 BC) earliest copy in 900 AD, 7 total copies, 1200 years time gap, accuracy— unknown. Aristotle (384-322) earliest copy 1100 AD, 49 Copies, 1400 years time gap, accuracy—unknown. Caesar (100 BC-44 AD) earliest copy 900 AD, 10 copies, accuracy—unknown. Herodotus (480-425 BC) earliest copy 900 AD, eight copies, 1300 years time gap, accuracy—unknown. Aristophanes (450-385 BC), earliest copy 900 AD, 10 copies, accuracy—unknown. Tacitus (c. 100) earliest copy 1100 AD, 20 copies, 1000 years time gap, accuracy—unknown. Sophoclese (496-406 BC) earliest copy 1000AD, 193 copies, 1400 years time gap, accuracy—unknown. Homer (c. 900 BC) earliest copy 400 BC, 643 copies, 500 years time gap, accuracy—95 percent. Now let’s contrast that with the New Testament: written 50-100 AD, earliest copies c. 130 AD, nearly 5,700 copies, within 80 years time gap, accuracy—99.5 percent! (See Table 1.2) To compound this even further, it is known that if we had no existing copies of the New Testament writings whatsoever, we can still compile all of the New Testament (with the exception of a few verses in 2 and 3 John) just by reading the writings of the church fathers!

Even with this amount of data to amply support the reliability of the New Testament writings, some critics may falsely claim there are still thousands of errors within these texts. While there may be thousands of copies, suspicion is still raised by skeptics that they are littered with errors. At this point, it is vital to make the distinction between errors and variances. This touches on the topic of the doctrine of Inerrancy. Inerrancy deals with the integrity and infallibility of the original manuscripts in their entirety. The Scriptures are God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), meaning they are directly from and inspired by Him, which implies infallibility, since God is perfect. In short, “Inerrancy means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they teach, whether that teaching has to do with doctrine, history, science, geography, geology, or other disciplines or knowledge.” Inerrancy still allows for the characteristics of the authors to shine through, the different perspectives of the same event to be presented (i.e. the gospels), different grammar styles, etc., but all in all they do not contradict each other. The contradictions would be rightly defined as errors, but there are none. What one will find are the variances within the copies. Variance simply means there was different word order or a differently spelling used between separate copies. Each time one of these occurred it would be counted as a variant. While there may be thousands of variants having to do with syntax or spelling, none of them affect central doctrine, especially that of Inerrancy. Norman Geisler assures, “There are less than 40 places in the New Testament where we are really not certain which reading is the original, but none of these has any effect on a central doctrine of faith. Note: the problem is not what we don’t know what the text is, but that we are not certain which text has the right reading.” With this much accuracy within the thousands of copies it is hard to believe why the human mind and heart would still doubt the testimony of Scripture. And just in case someone might want to claim the apostles were partial to the records of Jesus’ miracles, just this month (October 2014), Ignazio Perrucci, a historian and archivist hired by the vatican to research and analyze ancient manuscripts, discovered a parchment written by the Roman Historian Velleius giving a eye-witness account of Jesus of Nazareth in 31 AD resuscitating an infant from death. Authorities are still investigating the authenticity of this parchment. While it is always wise to allow a window of doubt for new findings such as this until it is conclusive, if it is a true find it will further solidify the true testimony of Scripture (not that it needs it).

I would have to say that it is rather unique the way God went about establishing His word to mankind.  He has displayed great power through the creation of the universe and the miracle of life, but to use man in the creation of His word in the realm of time is both unique and miraculous.  It would have to take a sovereign God who is in control of all circumstances to be able to work through sinful human beings in order to pen down His message of redemption to mankind.  He saw to it that Scripture would be written, preserved, and communicated to His most beloved creation.  Anyone who desires to look into what the Scriptures have to say can trust that it was not merely a man-made, man-controlled process that determined which writings were included (this goes for both Old and New Testaments).  There was no hidden agenda and no ulterior motive for the inclusion of these particular writings.  It was necessary to canonize Scripture. The process was objective as can be seen by the historical and manuscript evidence. When one considers the historical background of the early church, the heresies, the persecutions, the honest reporting of eye-witness events given by the apostles and church fathers, the abundant evidence in the manuscripts, and learning how the New Testament canon was formed, it would be hard pressed to reject the testimony of Scripture. A quote from the Moody Bible Handbook of Theology will help conclude this paper: “Through the study of the Greek manuscripts as well as the early versions, textual critics have been able to determine the text that is substantially that of the original writings. It is evident that the hand of God has preserved the various texts through the centuries to enable scholars to collate them and reconstruct the text as closely as the possible to the original writings.” These original writings are trustworthy and true. They contain the greatest message of salvation known to mankind. Anyone who puts their trust in Jesus, of whom the Scriptures testify, will not be disappointed. Read the ancient writings and encounter the living God.

Table 1.1 The New Testament as it Gained Acceptance by the Early Church

100

200

250

300

400

Different parts of our New Testament were written by this time, but not collected and defined as “Scripture.” Early Christian writers (i.e. Polycarp and Ignatius) quote from the gospels and Paul’s letters, as well as from other Christian writing and oral sources.

Paul’s letters were collected late in the first century. Matthew, Mark, and Luke were brought together by 150

New Testament used in the church at Rome (the “Muratorian Canon”)

Four Gospels

Acts

Paul’s letters: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon,

James, 1 & 2 John, Jude, Revelation of John, Revelation of Peter, Wisdom of Solomon

To be used in private, but not public, worship: The Shepherd of Hermas

New Testament used by Origen

Four Gospels

Acts

Paul’s letters: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon

1 & 2 John, Revelation of John

Disputed

Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, The Shepherd of Hermas, Letter of Barnabas, Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Gospel of the Hebrews

New Testament used by Eusebius

Four Gospels

Acts

Paul’s letters: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon

1 & 2 John, Revelation of John (authorship in doubt)

Disputed but well known

James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude

New Testament fixed for the West by the Council of Carthage

Four Gospels

Acts

Paul’s letters: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon

Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter,

1, 2, & 3 John, Jude, Revelation of John

To be excluded

The Shepherd of Hermas, Letter of Barnabas, Gospel of the Hebrews, Revelation of Peter, Acts of Peter, Didache

Table taken from Bruce Shelly’s Church History, In Plain Language, pg. 67

Table 1.2

The Progress of Revelation

Book

Approximate Date Written

Author

1. James

A.D. 44-49

James

2. Galatians

A.D. 49-50

Paul

3. Matthew

A.D. 50-60

Matthew

4. Mark

A.D. 50-60

Mark

5. 1 Thessalonians

A.D. 51

Paul

6. 2 Thessalonians

A.D. 51-52

Paul

7. 1 Corinthians

A.D. 55

Paul

8. 2 Corinthians

A.D. 55-56

Paul

9. Romans

A.D. 56

Paul

10. Luke

A.D 60-61

Luke

11. Ephesians

A.D. 60-62

Paul

12. Philippians

A.D. 60-62

Paul

13. Colossians

A.D. 60-62

Paul

14. Philemon

A.D. 60-62

Paul

15. Acts

A.D. 62

Luke

16. 1 Timothy

A.D. 62-64

Paul

17. Titus

A.D. 62-64

Paul

18. 1 Peter

A.D. 64-65

Peter

19. 2 Timothy

A.D. 66-67

Paul

20. 2 Peter

A.D. 67-68

Peter

21. Hebrews

A.D. 67-69

Unknown

22. Jude

A.D. 68-70

Jude

23. John

A.D. 80-90

John

24. 1 John

A.D. 90-95

John

25. 2 John

A.D. 90-95

John

26. 3 John

A.D. 90-95

John

27. Revelation

A.D. 94-96

John

*Taken from the MacArthur Bible Commentary, page 1094

Also available for iBooks:

The Canonicity of the New Testament

References

Christian Apologetics Research Ministry, Retrieved from: http://carm.org/manuscript-evidence

Duffield, Guy P. Foundations of Pentecostal Theology. (1987). L.I.F.E Bible College at Los Angeles.

Enns Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology Revised and Expanded. (2008). Moody Publishers

Eusebius, The Church History, Translation and Commentary by Paul L. Maier. (2007). Kregel Publications.

Geisler, Norman L. (1999). Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Book House, Retrieved from: www.alwaysbeready.com. > http://www.johnankerberg.org/Articles/_PDFArchives/theological-dictionary/TD1W0402.pdf)

Geisler, Norman L. and Brooks, Ronald M. (2008). Baker Publishing Group.

Holy Bible, The. (1995). New American Standard Bible. The Lockman Foundation.

Holy Bible, The. (1982). New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 1, Retrieved from: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/irenaeus-book1.html

MacArthur, John. (2005). The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Martyr, Justin. First Apology, Retrieved from: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html

World News Daily Report (2014), Retrieved from http://worldnewsdailyreport.com/newly-found-document-holds-eyewitness-account-of-jesus-performing-miracle/

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