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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

New Testament Canon



The New Testament Canon

bible scroll

The New Testament is the collection of 27 books that constitute the sacred scripture of the Christian religion, along with Old Testament. The New Testament contains the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the 13 letters of the Apostle Paul, as well as other writings from Peter and more.

The New Testament is about half the size of the Old Testament and comparable in size to the Qur'an. The books are mostly ordered by type of writing, as opposed to chronologically.

"The prophets" in the Christian church, speaking themselves under inspiration of the Holy Spirit acted as checks on the transmission of error orally before the completion of the written word. Secondly, it was under their inspired superintendence that. the New Testament Scriptures were put forth as they were successively written. 1 Cor. 14:37: "if any man ... be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write ... are the commandments of the Lord."


The History of the Canon

Thus by the twofold sanction of inspiration, that of the authors and that of the judges, the canonicity of each book is established. By God's gracious providence most of the books of the New Testament were in the church's possession years before the death of leading apostles, all of them before the death of John. If spurious books had crept into the cycle of professedly inspired books, they would have been at once removed by apostolic authority.

The history of the New Testament canon in its collected form is not so clear as the evidence for the inspiration of its separate books. Probably each leading church made for itself a collection of those books which were proved on good testimony to have been written by inspired men, and sanctioned as such originally by men having the "discerning of spirits," as well as by uninspired men in the several churches. See 1 Cor. 12:10; 1 Jn. 4:1. Thus, many collections would be made.

Their mutual accordance in the main, as that of independent witnesses, is the strongest proof of the correctness of our canon, especially when we consider the jealous care with which the early churches discriminated between spurious and authentic compositions. This view is confirmed by the doubts of some, churches at first concerning certain New Testament books, proving that each church claimed the right to judge for itself; while their mutual love led to the freest communication of the inspired writings to one another.

At last, when the evidence for the inspiration of the few doubted ones was fully sifted, all agreed. And the third council of Carthage (A.D. 397) declared that agreement by ratifying the canon of the New Testament as it is now universally accepted.

The earliest notice of a collection is in 2 Pet. 3:16, which speaks of "all the epistles" of Paul as if some collection of them then existed and was received in the churches as on a par with "the other Scriptures." The earliest uninspired notice is that of the anonymous fragment of "the canon of the New Testament" attributed to Caius, a Roman presbyter, published by Muratori (Ant. Ital., 3:854). It recognizes all the books except Epp. Hebrews, James, the 2 Epp. Peter, and perhaps 3 John.

It condemns as spurious "the Shepherd, written very recently in our own times at Rome by Hermes, while his brother Plus was bishop of the see of Rome," i.e. between A.D. 140 and 150. Thus the canon in far the greater part is proved as received in the first half of the 2nd century, while some of John's contemporaries were still living. In the same age the Peshito or Syriac version remarkably complements the Muratorian fragment's canon, by including also Hebrews and James. In the latter part of the 2nd century Clement of Alexandria refers to "the gospel" collection and that of all the epistles of "the apostles."

The anonymous epistle to Diognetus still earlier speaks of "the law, the prophets, the gospels, and the apostles." Ignatius of Antioch, a hearer of John (Ep. ad Philad., section 5), terms the written gospel "the flesh of Jesus," and the apostles, i.e. their epistles, "the presbytery of the church." Theophilus of Antioch (Ad Autolycum, 3:11) and Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., 2:27) term the New Testament writings "the Holy Scriptures." Tertullian (Adv. Marc, 4:2) uses for the first time the term" New Testament," and calls the whole Bible "the whole instrument of both Testaments." Thus, there is a continuous chain of evidence from the apostles down to the 3rd century.

The quotations by the early church fathers (of whom Origen quotes at least two thirds of New Testament), and the oldest versions, the Syriac, Latin, and Egyptian, prove that their Scriptures were the same as ours. Eusebius the ecclesiastical historian (A.D. 330) mentions (3:25) all the 27 books of the New Testament, dividing them into the universally acknowledged and the debated; the latter the epistles of James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John, and Apocalypse, "received by the majority," and at last received by all the churches when the evidence had been more fully tested. A third class he calls "the spurious," as "the Shepherd of Hermas," "the Epistle of Barnabas," "the Acts of Paul," which all rejected. Moreover all our oldest Greek manuscripts of the epistles contain those epistles once doubted by some; so do all the versions except the Syriac; see above.

The church of Rome was certainly not infallible when it once rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews. Afterward it acknowledged its error and accepted it. Rome says we received the canon from the church (meaning herself), and that therefore we are bound to receive her authority as infallible in interpreting it. But we did not receive her original view of the spuriousness of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Nor have we received most of our manuscripts, testimonies of fathers and versions, from Rome, but, from the Greek, Syrian, and African churches. Further, even if the premises were true the conclusion is false. Because a body of men witness to and transmit a work deriving all its authority from God, it does not follow they are its infallible interpreters. If the argument were true the Jews could use it with tenfold power against all Christians, for the Jews unquestionably are the witnesses and transmitters of the Old Testament to us (Rom. 3:2); and on Rome's principle we should be bound to accept the Jews' interpretation of it, renounce Christianity and become Jews.

Nothing but almighty Providence could have constrained both the Jews (in the case of the Old Testament) and the Roman and Greek apostate churches (in the case of the New Testament) to witness for the very Scriptures which condemn them. It utterly disproves the infidel allegation of collusion and corruption of the Scriptures.

Again Rome argues, since the rule of faith must be known, and since some books of Scripture were not universally received until the 4th century, Scripture cannot be the rule of faith. The answer is: those portions of Scripture are not the rule of faith to those to whom they are not given with full means of knowing them as such. But all Scripture is the rule of faith to all to whom it is given, and who may, if they will, know it.

That could not become a portion of inspired Scripture in the 4th century which was not so before. Man can never make that inspired which God has not; nor can the doubts of some divest of inspiration that which God has inspired. The council of Carthage did not make aught part of Scripture which was not so before. It merely sealed by declaration the decision which the churches previously came to by carefully sifting the testimony for each book's inspiration. Even at the council of Nicea (A.D. 325) Constantine appeals to "the books of the evangelists, apostles; and prophets" as "the divinely inspired books for deciding their controversies."

Accordingly in the Nicene Creed, "according to the Scriptures," quoted from 1 Cor. 15:4, implies their being recognized as the standard. The Diocletian persecution (A.D. 303) was directed against the Christian Scriptures; whoever delivered them were stigmatized as "traitors" (tradilores), so that they must have then existed as a definite collection. They were publicly read in the churches (Col. 4:16) as an essential part of worship, just as the law and the prophets were in the synagogue (Justin Martyr, Apol., 1:66). Practically, as soon as they were severally thus read and accepted in the apostolic age by men in the churches having the discernment of spirits, they were canonized, i.e. immediately after having been written.

The transition from oral to written teaching was gradual. Catechizing, i.e. instructing by word of mouth, was the mode at first, and "faith" then "came by hearing" (Luke 1:4; Rom. 10:17), in which however there was always an appeal to Old Testament Scripture (Acts 17:11). But that the orally taught might know more fully "the (unerring) certainty ten asphaleian of those things wherein they had been instructed," and to guard against the dangers of oral tradition (illustrated in John 21:23,24), the word was committed to writing by apostles and evangelists, and was accredited publicly by the churches in the lifetime of the writers.

The approach of their death, their departure to foreign lands, their imprisonment, and the need of a touchstone to test heretical writings and teachings in their absence, all made a written record needful. The cessation of miracles and personal inspiration was about the same time as the written inspired word was completed. Bishop Kaye (Eccl. Hist., 98-100) observes that Justin Martyr, Theophilus, etc., only make general assertions of miracles still continuing, being loath to see what seemingly weakened their cause, the cessation of miracles; but they give no specific instance. The cessation was so gradual as hardly to be perceived at first. The power probably did not extend beyond those younger disciples on whom the apostles conferred it by laying on hands (Acts 8:17,19). Thus miracles would cease early in the 2nd century, shortly after John's death and the completion of the canon.

The scantiness of direct quotations from Scripture in the apostolic fathers arises from their being so full of all they had seen and heard, and so dwelling less on the written word. But they take it for granted, and imitate the tone and salutations of the apostolic epistles. All four make some express references to New Testament Scripture. With much that is good in the apostolic fathers, their works "remind us what the apostles would have been, had they not been inspired, and what we ourselves should be, if we had not the written word" (Wordsworth, Canon Scr., p. 137).

So far from there being a gradual waning of inspiration from the writings of the apostles and evangelists to those of succeeding Christian writers, there is so wide a chasm (the more remarkable as the early fathers had the apostolic writings to guide them) that this alone is a strong proof that the Scripture writers were guided by an extraordinary divine power. Their previous habits (as being some of them illiterate, and all bigoted Jew) prove that nothing but divine power could have so changed them from their former selves as to be the founders of a spiritual and worldwide dispensation (see Luke 24:25,49), utterly alien to their Jewish prejudices. Their style accords with their supposed position, simple and unlearned (except Paul's), yet free from aught offensive to the polished.

If it be asked why we do not receive the epistles of Barnabas and of Clement, the Acts of Paul and Thecla (one of the earliest apocryphal writings), etc., we answer not because (as Rome would have us say) the churches could not err in judgment in rejecting them, but because as a matter of evidence we believe they did not err. These works were not received by contemporary Christians who had the best opportunity of knowing evidences of authenticity and inspiration. If one or two cite them it is the exception, not invalidating the otherwise uniform testimony against them. The internal evidence of their style is fatal to their pretensions. So "The Acts of Paul"; Tertullian (De Bapt., 17) testifies its author was excluded by John from the office of presbyter for having written it.

The New Testament is a complete organic whole, so that even one book could not be omitted without loss to the completeness of the Christian cycle of truth. As the Old Testament is made up of the law, and the doctrinal, historical, and prophetical books; so in the New Testament the four Gospels are the fundamental law, based, as in the Pentateuch, on the included history; the Acts unfold the continued history; the Epistles are the doctrinal, the Apocalyptic revelations the prophetical, elements.

Canonical is sometimes used in the Christian fathers, not in the sense divinely authoritative, but proper for public reading in church. Thus Gregory of Nazianzus calls the Apocalypse the last work of grace, and yet apocryphal, i.e. fit for private not public reading in church.

The New Testament: The Gospels

Main page for the New Testament

The Gospels: The Gospel of Matthew / The Gospel of Mark / The Gospel of Luke / The Gospel of John

The book of Acts

The writings of Paul: The book of Romans / the book of 1 Corinthians / the book of 2 Corinthians / the book of Galatians / the book of Ephesians / the book of Colossians / the book of 1 Thessalonians / the book of 2 Thessalonians / the book of 1 Timothy / the book of 2 Timothy / the book of Titus / the book of Philemon

The General Episltes: The book of Hebrews / the book of James / the book of 1 Peter / the book of 2 Peter

The other writings of John: 1, 2, and 3 John and Revelation

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Reference

  1. Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 305.