For nearly twenty centuries Christianity has had the inspired and authoritative New Testament as its rule for faith and practice. How these twenty-seven books came to be recognized as God’s Word and accepted by Christians is the topic of the New Testament (NT) canon. Apart from an established canon or accepted tradition to govern belief, the Christian Church would have little upon which to base its faith. Without a fixed standard against which error can be measured, subjective experience would eventually trump oral tradition and heterodox teachings would run wild. If the biblical documents are God’s truth, how is it that Christianity came to accept the twenty-seven books called the New Testament? Who decided on twenty-seven? Why not just twenty-six? Or twenty-eight? What criteria were used to distinguish between divine voice and human voice amongst the writings of the first century?

Answers to these questions will be provided in this series using primarily the medium of historiography—the writing of history. Rather than imposing a narrative upon the historical events, it is the events themselves that are exposed by the narrative which believers call the New Testament. Admittedly accepting the NT record as an accurate account extends beyond historical processes and involves faith. Nevertheless, historical method is not therefore excluded as a viable (and perhaps only objective) means for codifying a canonic guide for life and faith.

We start with some background on the Old Testament. The canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament or just OT) was not officially identified until the councils of Jamnia (90, 118 A.D.). It is significant that several hundred years after the last OT book was written, the text was still awaiting an official stamp of approval, yet in Jesus’ day he could refer to the OT writings as “scripture” (Jn 10:35); “law and prophets” (Mt 7:12; 22:40); and “Law of Moses…Prophets…Psalms” (Lk 24:44). This intimates public recognition of God’s Word precedes an official canonized list. Similarly early believers seemingly knew of and approved the Old Testament content prior to it being officially recognized by any organized group or institution. In addition to the recognized OT scriptures, an “oral tradition” stood behind Jesus’ teaching (e.g. I Cor 11:23; 15:3; also known as the kerygma), the Pauline epistles, and the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke). These biblical sources were widely circulated throughout the entire Roman Empire and by the middle of the second century came to be the recognized, authoritative source  for believers leading up to a completed canon.

That there were so many different but similar writings being collected and circulated amongst the early Church is one of the forces behind the formation of the NT canon. While these non-canonical writings were being read in Christian assemblies and/or being used for private reading, some shorter epistles (e.g. 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, and Revelation) were much later in being accepted. The Muratorian Canon (c. 200CE), Origen’s canon (c. 250CE), Eusebius’ canon (c. 300CE), the Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) all included the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 110CE) and the Codex Alexandrinus (c. 5th century) had 1 and 2 Clement (c. 100CE; 150CE respectively). This material and others (viz., Letter of Barnabas, Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Gospel of Hebrews, Didache, Diatessaron) suggests the extent of non-canonical literature was immense. Consequently, the Church was eventually faced with a decision to render what writings will be regarded authoritative.

Some of the post-apostolic fathers recognized most of Paul’s epistles. Clement (bishop of Rome; died c. 100CE), knew of Paul’s letters to Corinth. Ignatius (bishop of Antioch; executed c. 110-115CE) attests to other Pauline epistles. Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna; contemporary of Ignatius; martyred c. 156-160CE) was familiar with all of Paul’s epistles but three (1 Thessalonians, Philemon, Titus). This strongly indicates that by the beginning of the 2nd century all of Paul’s epistles had been circulated amongst and accepted by a majority of churches.

Interestingly, Irenaeus (writing around 180CE) quotes 1,085 different passages of the NT (626 from the Gospels, 54 from Acts, 280 from Paul, 15 from others NT books, 29 from Revelation) and Augustine (writing around 380CE) quotes from 29,540 passages in the NT. Clearly the NT documents were penned before their time. In fact, virtually the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from quotations in the early Church Father’s writings (ca. 150CE – 400CE).

There are approximately 5,600 copies of Greek manuscripts dating from early 2nd century to the 16th century. The diversity of manuscripts illustrates not all the NT is from a single source. Available for scrutiny are approximately 8,000 manuscript copies of the Latin Vulgate (translation done by Jerome, 382-405CE) and more than 350 copies of the Syriac (Aramaic) New Testament dating ca. 400s. It is significant that no chronological gap exists in manuscripts from the early 2nd century until the 16th century. If we compare other ancient texts with the quantity of NT manuscripts and show how far removed in time they are from their original source, we learn the NT record is not only a) remarkably abundant but b) in close proximity to their original writing leading many scholars to claim that no other ancient texts are more scrutinized and better attested to their historical reliability.

Equally significant is the fact that Paul’s letters show an amazing amount of consistency with the Gospel record regarding the events surrounding Jesus and his message. With the Gospels Paul affirms Jesus…

  • was born of a woman (Gal 4:4)
  • descended from David (Rom 1:3), was the Messiah (1 Cor 15:3)
  • ministered in Israel (Rom 15:8)
  • Had a brother named James (Gal 1:19; 1 Cor 9:5)
  • shared a common meal with other believers (1 Cor 11:23)
  • was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23)
  • was cruelly treated (Rom 15:3)
  • gave testimony before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13)
  • was crucified (Gal 2:20) because the Jews of Judea hated him (1 Thess 2:14)
  • died (1 Cor 15:3)
  • was buried (1 Cor 15:4)
  • was raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:5)
  • was taken to heaven (Rom 10:6; Eph 4:9)

Clearly the NT records are internally consistent. Moreover, about 40 other “Gospels” were written in the first few centuries but none were accepted by the early Christians or the Christian leaders because the stories they told were ”fantastic” and read like science fiction. For example, the Gospel of Peter tells that two angels led Jesus out of his tomb and his head extended into the clouds. Or the cross of Jesus, after following him out of his tomb, spoke to a voice in heaven! The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus asking Thomas “Who do you say that I am” and Thomas answers, in effect, “I don’t know!” Also Thomas’ Gospel contains nothing directly related to the details of Jesus’ death and resurrection and hardly anything about what life was like in first-century Palestine, where Jesus lived and ministered. In many cases these other Gospels read like a Harry Potter novel! They may be a lot of fun to read or make for nice conspiracy theories, but lack all the signs of reliable history!

Part 2 will be posted in a few days.

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2 Comments

  1. Paul,

    I look forward to this series. The canon has interested me for years. I’ve had an increase in customer requests (at the bookstore) for works on the canon. There aren’t many, especially at a lay level. You mentioned in our phone conversation a particular book you were especially happy with. I think you said it was from the UK. Is that right? What was the title and author? What other sources do you recommend?

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