The Canon of the New Testament

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What we know today as the New Testament was compiled over a period of many decades. It was first referenced as the “New Testament” by Clement of Alexandria. It is believed that the books that comprise what we know as the New Testament canon were in existence no later than the end of the first century. The included books varied by different sources until the fourth century when the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasios, included them in a letter to his flock in AD 367. His list was approved by councils at Hippo in AD393 and Carthage in AD397. The process used to arrive at this list varied by time and source.

There were many debates along the way and some continue to this day. In order to explore the journey undertaken to arrive at the Canon of the New Testament, we first must define the word. The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon, which meant a reed or a rod which was used for measurement. Dictionary. com defines the word as “a standard” or “the works of an author that have been accepted as authentic. ” From this we can surmise that in order to declare a group of books as a “canon,” we need to determine the authenticity of the author and their broad acceptance by the body.

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The next step in establishing a canon is to determine the factors that when applied will qualify a work to be a part of the canon. In Theology for Today, Elmer Towns gives us four basic principles: (1)The authorship of the book by an apostle is necessary to be included in the canon. However there were some books that were included because of the relationship of the author to an apostle that raised the book to the level of an apostolic book. Mark had fellowship with Peter, Luke had fellowship with Paul, and James was the brother of the Lord. 2)The spiritual content of the book indicated it was revelation in nature, hence belonged in the canon. (3)The universal acceptance of the book by the church indicated its canonicity. (4)Was there evidence of divine inspiration? Whenever a book gave evidence to its being inspired by the Holy Spirit, it was included in the canon. All 27 books in what we know as the New Testament meet these four principles. There have been many attempts to add to the canon since its foundation, but none have been able to pass these tests.

The easiest principle to use in ruling out a book is the spiritual content. Most of the books that have been considered over the years were ruled out do to confliction with other parts of Scripture. The internal testimony of the authors showed that they believed that there was an authority they were writing with that declared the canonicity of the writings. Paul many times states that his message was not his, but was revealed to him by Jesus. In 2 Timothy 3:16 he writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God. Peter directly declares Paul’s letters to be part of the canon in 2 Peter 3:15-16 where he states, “Just as our brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him…as they do the other Scriptures. ” Not only does Peter acknowledge that Paul’s writings were inspired by God, but he declares them Scripture. While not all of the books contained proclamations of canonicity, they meet the principles laid out earlier. The early church fathers provide us with testimony in their writings which indicate wide acceptance of the books.

Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Syrian Antioch, and Justin Martyr all quoted or alluded to books of the New Testament canon including all four Gospels, Acts, and many of the Pauline epistles. As heretical teachings such as Gnosticism began to spread the early apologists began to realize that an authoritative canon was necessary in order to turn back the tide of heresy. One of the top apologists of the time was Irenaeus. He declared that there could only be four gospels and to add or subtract from that number would be heresy. He also countered Marcion who that the “Old Testament God had been evil, different from the New Testament God. Marcion wanted to remove all ties to Judaism from Christianity and only accepted Luke and ten of Paul’s letters in his canon. Irenaeus responded by emphasizing the authority of all four Gospels and all thirteen of Paul’s letters. Marcion’s canon was followed by other varying canons over the next two centuries. One list which was very close to our current canon was the Muraturian Canon. It appears to include the four Gospels, Acts, I and II Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, I and II Thessalonians, Romans, Philemon, Titus, I and II Timothy, all three epistles of John, and Revelations.

It directly rejected the epistles of Paul to the Laodiceans and the Alexandrians, and questioned strongly the Revelation of Peter. The first list that clearly defined the 27 books that we know today as the New Testament was contained in a letter written by Athanasius, the bishop of Rome, in AD 367. In it he declares these books “God inspired Scripture…handed down to our fathers by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. ” About this same time the oldest complete copy of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, was made which contained all 27 books plus two additional books known as Barnabas and Hermas.

These debates finally led to the church meeting as an official council in Laodicea in AD 363. This council consisted of representatives from most of the churches in the Phrygian region. This first council developed what became known as the 59th canon, which states that only the canonical books of the New Testament should be read in the church services. This declaration was followed by a similar one at the Third Council of Carthage in AD 397, but added a list of the 27 books. The Council of Hippo in AD 419 followed suit. By this time the New Testament Canon as we know it today was fairly widely accepted.

There were however holdouts. The Syrian National Church replaced the four canonical Gospels with the Diatessaron, a harmonization of the Gospels. They also held some objection to Revelations and some of the epistles. The Diatessaron was eventually ousted in favor of the original four Gospels, but they continued to exclude 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The Ethiopian Church was another holdout. Their New Testament contains 38 books to this day adding Hermas, two Clementine epistles, and the Apostolic Constitutions.

In today’s evangelical world, there exist no writings that would be considered worthy to be added to the canon. Many writings were at one time in history considered worthy by some to be part of the canon but eventual ruled out. “The Shepherd” by Hermas contains teaching that is contradictory to the rest of Scripture. The Gospel of Thomas concludes with a statement from Jesus that “every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven. ” While some books like Hebrews, 2 Peter, and 2nd and 3rd John took some time to gain widespread approval many others have been consistently ruled out.

Some question whether or not the possibility exists of additional books being found that would warrant inclusion in the New Testament canon. Is it possible that some were lost early on that even the early church fathers were not aware of? It is highly unlikely. The canon has been fleshed out over the years. Initially through the revelation by God through the authors and passed on to us through generations by the church fathers. The canon is now considered closed by most evangelicals. The New Testament is a special revelation from God to bring to us his plan of Salvation in which the central character is Jesus Christ.

Each book brings its own unique view of that plan laying out God’s will for us and to show us His gift of grace which is received through His son Jesus Christ. It is important for us to know and understand where our Scripture came from and how it was authenticated. This book is the foundation of our faith and the divine Word of God. It is important to recognize that the canon was not one man’s fantasy, but the work of many authenticated authors. The books were not arbitrarily chosen but set apart by stringent criteria and the decision handed down by councils of trusted early church fathers.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing Plc. , 2006. Metzger, Bruce M. , and Michael D Coogan, . The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993. Tinney, Merrill C. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eermans Publishing Co. , 1961. Towns, Elmer L. Theology of Today. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2008.

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The Canon of the New Testament. (2019, May 01). Retrieved from

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