The Formation of the New Testament Canon

For the early Christians the supreme authority was not the Old Testament but Jesus Christ, their true Master and risen Lord.

The term “canon” used with reference to the Bible means the collection of books which are received as divinely inspired and therefore authoritative for faith and life. The recognition of the canon of the New Testament is one of the most important developments in the thought and practice of the early church; yet history is silent as to how, when, and by whom it was brought about. It is possible, however, to reconstruct some of the influences that must have contributed to the emergence of the New Testament canon.

The Bible of the earliest Christians was the Old Testament, and, with one possible exception, all the references in the New Testament writings to “the scriptures” refer to the Jewish scriptures (the possible exception is the mention in II Pet. 3:16 of “the other scriptures”). Like every pious Jew, Jesus accepted the Old Testament as the word of God and appealed to it. Thus, he proves the indissolubility of marriage from Genesis 1:27; 2:24 (Mark 10:6ff.), states that the Holy Spirit had inspired David (Mark 12:36), and more than once bases arguments on the presupposition that scripture cannot be broken (Matt. 26:54; Luke 22:37; John 10:35). Most significantly, in the several parts of the Old Testament he finds his coming, his work, and his death foretold (Luke 4:16-21; 24:24-27, 44-46, John 5:39).

In a similar vein Peter (in Acts 1:16), James (Jas. 4:5), Stephen (in Acts 7:38), and Paul (Rom. 3:2) refer explicitly or implicitly to the Old Testament as oracles of God which cannot be set aside. For the early church as a whole, as for Jesus, the Old Testament pointed forward to the coming of the Messiah, and its prophecies obtained their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth (John 5:39; Acts 17:2-3; II Tim. 3:15; Heb. 10:1). It follows that it can be rightly understood only with reference to this fulfillment.

For the early Christians the supreme authority was not the Old Testament but Jesus Christ, their true Master and risen Lord. The apostles and their helpers did not preach the Old Testament; they bore witness to Jesus Christ who had come to fulfill the law and the prophets (that is, to bring them to completion, Matt. 5:17) and who, in doing this, had given authoritative pronouncements concerning what is the true and most profound meaning of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:21-28; Mark 10:2ff.) and had repealed certain of its prescriptions (Mark 7:19).

We are not surprised, therefore, that in the early Church, the words of Jesus were treasured and quoted, taking their place beside the Old Testament and being held as of equal or superior authority to it (Acts 20:35; I Cor. 7:10, 12; 9:14; I Tim. 5:18). Parallel with the oral circulation of Jesus’ teaching were apostolic interpretations of the significance of his person and work for the life of the church. It is natural that when these two kinds of authoritative materials (the remembered words of Jesus and the apostolic explanations of his person and work) were drawn up in written form, the documents would be circulated and read in services of worship (Col. 4:16; I Thess. 5:27; Rev. 1:3).

Just when it was that certain Christ writings began to be generally accepted as of equal authority with the Old Testament is not known. Presumably, as each Gospel was completed, it was approved (cf. John 21:24, “we know that his testimony is true”) and used for public reading, first in the place of its composition, then copied and circulated to other churches. The collecting of Paul’s letters must have begun early, in the apostle’s own lifetime. He himself prescribed (Col. 4:16) that two churches interchange two of his letters (making copies, naturally); from that it was the natural step to their collecting copies of his other letters as well. The book of Acts doubtless shared the circulation and acceptance of Luke’s earlier volume, the third Gospel.

At first a local church would have only a few apostolic letters and perhaps one or two Gospels. During the course of the second century most churches came to possess and acknowledge a canon which included the present four Gospels, the Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, I Peter, and I John. Seven books still lacked general recognition; Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude, and Revelation. It is hard to say if this was the cause or the effect of the divergent opinions concerning their canonicity. On the other hand, certain other Christian writings, such as the first letter of Clement, the letter of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache, otherwise known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,1 were accepted as scriptural by several ecclesiastical writers, though rejected by the majority.

During the third century and part of the fourth century there was a sifting of the disputed books; certain of them came to be acknowledged as canonical and others as apocryphal. Among the church fathers who made a careful study of the usage throughout the church was Eusebius of Caesarea, who quotes in his Ecclesiastical History the pronouncements of earlier writers concerning the limits of the canon. In summarizing the results of his investigations (Book III, chap. 25), he divides the books into three classes: (a) twenty-two are generally acknowledged to be canonical, namely the four Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul (including Hebrews), I John, I Peter, and Revelation (though see Eusebius’ comment cited in (c) below); (b) five are widely accepted, though disputed by some (apparently all were accepted by Eusebius himself) namely James, Jude, II Peter (earlier regarded by Eusebius as spurious), II and III John; and (c) five are spurious, namely the Acts of Paul, Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Barnabas, and the Didache; Eusebius continues, “To these perhaps the Revelation of John should be added, as some reject it while others count it among the accepted books.” It will be observed that this is virtually the canon as we know it today. After Eusebius’ time (about A.D. 325) the fluctuations in the canon are very slight.

In the East, Athanasius was the first to name (in his Festal Letter for A.D. 367) exactly the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as exclusively canonical.2 In the West, at the African synods of Hippo Regius (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397 and 419) the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were accepted. Augustine supported this canon, which through the Latin Vulgate translation of Jerome soon came into vogue through the Western church. Though in the East some continued to have doubts about the canonicity of the book of Revelation, eventually the canon of most of the Eastern churches came to be identified with that of the Western church. The Syrian church, however, accepted only twenty-two books; II Peter, II and III John, Jude and Revelation are lacking in the standard version of the Syriac Bible, called the Peshitta, dating from the early part of the fifth century. Among Western Syrians acceptance of these books was slow; they were finally included in Bibles in the sixth and seventh centuries (the Philoxenian version). The Eastern Syrian church, having lost contact with the rest of Christendom, continued much longer to hold to the shorter canon.

Various external circumstances assisted in the process of canonization of the New Testament books. The emergence of heretical sects having their own sacred books made it imperative for the church to determine the limits of the canon. Likewise, when Christians were persecuted for their faith it became a matter of utmost importance to know which books could and which could not be handed over to the imperial police without incurring the guilt of sacrilege.

As far as can be determined, the chief criterion for acceptance of particular writings as sacred, authoritative, and worthy of being read in services of worship was apostolic authorship. This requirement, however was not applied in a narrow sense, for in the case of two of the Gospels, the tradition of apostolic atmosphere and association (Mark with Peter and Luke with Paul) vouched for their authority. Other tests of canonicity included the question of a book’s general harmony with the rest of the New Testament, and its
continuous acceptance and usage in the churches as a sign of its value.

The slowness of determining the final limits of the canon is testimony to the care and vigilance of early Christians in receiving books purporting to be apostolic. But, while the collection of the New Testament into one volume was slow, the belief in a written rule of faith was primitive and apostolic. When, toward the close of the fourth century, church synods and councils began to issue pronouncements concerning the New Testament canon, they were merely ratifying the judgment of individual Christians throughout the church who had come to perceive by intuitive insight the inherent worth of the several books. In the most basic sense neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to perceive and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church.

1. These writings are available in English translation in what is known as the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers; current editions have been edited by K. Lake (1930), J. A. Kleist (1946-58), and E. J. Goospeed (1950).

2. In Athanasius’ list the book of Acts is followed immediately by the General Letters. ________________________________

Bruce Metzger (1914-2007) taught NT for many years at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is considered one of the most influential NT scholars of the 20th century. This is reprinted with permission from The New Testament, Its Background, Growth and Content (Abingdon, 1965), Appendix, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon.”

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Bruce Metzger
Professor Bruce M. Metzger (1914–2007), America’s greatest biblical scholar, who served as a Sunday School Superintendent early in his career and cared deeply about making disciples.

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