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New Testament Canonicity

By Terry Wilder –

The word canon (kanon) originally meant measuring reed, but eventually developed the meaning, standard. Pertaining to the New Testament (NT), the term refers to those books accepted by the church as the standard that governs Christian belief and conduct.1

When the apostles were alive and operating in the first century, no great need existed for a canon to be defined. This was because the apostles were divinely appointed and ordained men who had in themselves the authority of the Lord Jesus (cf. Matt 10:40; 1 Cor 9:1-3; Gal 4:14, etc.).2 The Lord himself had commissioned the apostles and given them this authority and given them the task to get the church “off the ground,” in a manner of speaking. They were to be God’s authority on this earth in between the time of the Lord’s ascension into heaven and the completion of the NT Scriptures, which would then become a final and continuing authority.

As long as the apostles and their immediate disciples were alive, people could easily determine what constituted apostolic teaching. That is to say, the pressure or need for a NT canon was not felt because the apostles’ teaching was still quite fresh in everyone’s mind. People were living who had actually heard the apostles teach in person. As time wore on, however, certain developments occurred which prompted the need for the definition of a NT canon.

THE ORIGINAL NEED FOR ESTABLLISHING A CANON

The Rise of Heresies
First, the rise of certain heresies occasioned the need for defining a NT canon. For example, Marcion came on the scene around A.D. 144 advocating some strange views on God and the Scriptures. He held to the existence of 2 different gods: an OT god, who was a harsh, judgmental and vindictive being, and a NT god, who was a loving, gracious and kind individual. According to Marcion, the NT god sent Jesus to redeem people from the OT god. This is obviously a false teaching.

Further, Marcion contended that the apostle Paul was the only preacher of the true word of God, and so he compiled his own Bible. He rejected the OT as inferior. His “canon” consisted of the works of Luke (with certain adjustments for things he did not like) and 10 of the Pauline epistles. He did not include the Pastoral Epistles and Hebrews. So, Marcion’s canon was quite restricted and truncated.

This development was one of the things that pushed the church towards a formal recognition of a NT canon. For, when heretics began to publish their various views and establish their own canons, it became incumbent upon the true church of Jesus Christ to refute them by publishing genuine editions of the canon and defining what the whole church regards as the canon. Therefore, the rise of heresies was one of the impetuses towards defining a canon.3

The Roman Persecution
Another factor which occasioned the need for establishing a NT canon was the Roman persecution which broke out. During certain times of this intermittent persecution Christians were subject to imprisonment and even death if they should possess any of the Christian Scriptures in their homes or personal possession. Clearly, if you are facing imprisonment or even the possibility of death for possessing the Christian Scriptures, it becomes rather import ant to know what the Christian Scriptures are. And therefore, this factor was another push in the direction of deciding which books were generally recognized as being a part of the NT canon (i.e. the word of God) and which books were simply corollary, supplemental works.4

The Apostles Were Off the Scene
Another factor which occasioned the need for establishing a NT canon was the fact that the apostles were of f the scene. As the second century wore on, the oral teaching of the apostles was becoming less and less familiar to believers and even the disciples of the apostles were beginning to die. Therefore, Christians were being separated further and further from the oral, authoritative teaching of the apostles. Consequently, as this trend continued, it became evident that there had to be less reliance upon the oral teaching of the apostles and more reliance upon the written teaching of the apostles and those under their supervision. Thus, it became necessary that the canon of Scripture be defined and recognized in order that succeeding generations in the church might know just what apostolic doctrine was and what it was not.5

CRITERIA OF CANONICITY

How did the church know which books were canonical and which were not? What were the principal criteria by which various books were recognized as being a part of the NT Scriptures?

Inspired of God
The basic criterion by which books were recognized as being a part of the NT Scriptures is whether they were considered “God-breathed” (theopneustos). Books do not become inspired because they are recognized as being canonical; rather, they are recognized as being canonical because they are inspired by God. That is to say, the intrinsic inspiration of a book led to it being recognized as such by the church and not the other way around.6

Three Principal Criteria
How did the church determine which books were inspired by God and which were not? Three principal criteria seemed to emerge which the early church used in recognizing books that had been inspired of God and thus canonical.7

  1. Apostolic Origin (Apostolicity). The apostles were commissioned by the Lord himself to be his authoritative spokesmen on this earth during the interval between the ascension of Christ and the completion of the NT Scriptures. Thus, they were given authority and the inspiration and gifting of the Holy Spirit which would enable them to write inerrant Scripture and teach inerrant doctrine. Therefore, the books of the NT were to be related in some way to one of these authoritative, inspired apostles. So, one criterion was apostolicity.8 The early Christians essentially asked, “Is this particular work under question the work of one of the apostles?” Or, “If it is not the work of the apostle himself, was it produced under the supervision of and with the stamp of approval of one of the apostles?”

Most of the books of the NT were written by the apostles of Jesus Christ.9 For example, Paul accounts for roughly half of our NT books; John and Matthew were apostles, and so on. But Luke was not an apostle, and we have two books in the NT written by Luke. So how is it that they were accepted? They were included because, although Luke was not an apostle, he was a close advisor, confidant, traveling companion and physician to the apostle Paul. That is, he was generally recognized to be a protégé of the apostle Paul, and what Luke wrote was in effect supervised by and approved by Paul.10 Or, take for example, John Mark and the Gospel of Mark. Mark was not an apostle, but it was generally recognized amongst early Christians that Peter was behind Marks gospel.11And thus, the work meets the criterion of having been written either by an apostle or by one under the immediate influence and supervision of an apostle.

  1. Recognition by the Churches. Recognition by the churches was another criterion used by the early church to determine what books were inspired of God.12 This principle asked whether the book was recognized by a leading church or group of churches. In other words, this criterion was concerned with the opinion and judgment of the leading churches of Christendom regarding a particular book. If a book was accepted as authoritative by the churches at Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Carthage, and so on, then, due to the influence of these churches, the chances were great that the church as a whole would consider it to be part of the word of God.

 

  1. The Content of the Book. A third criterion, which, along with apostolicity, would be the most import ant, was the content of the book.13 In other words, does the content of this particular book under scrutiny agree with the oral apostolic doctrine, i.e. the teaching of the apostles? Does it agree with the doctrine which the apostles themselves taught orally in person when they were alive on the earth? All of this really revolved around the apostles, these divinely empowered and appointed men, who were given this great responsibility and authority. They taught and wrote the word of God, and anything that was written, regardless of who wrote it, or what name it bore, or what connections it might have, if it was contrary to the teaching of the apostles, it was considered to be false, spurious, and not part of the word of God. As time wore on, it would be more and more difficult for them to make this decision because the oral teaching of the apostles would be less and less evident and clear. This development is the reason why the determination of NT canonicity must of necessity have been done in the very earliest centuries. It would be impossible in our day to try to compare the content of a particular book which we might be examining to see if it is in accord with the oral apostolic doctrine, because the only apostolic doctrine we know today is what we get out of the written Scriptures. Today, for the most part, we do not have access to the oral teaching of the apostles.

Oral tradition gets garbled, perverted and distorted, and therefore, the further away from the oral apostolic teaching that you get, the less certain you can be that you are comparing the real apostolic doctrine with what is written in particular books. Thus, it was necessary that this criterion be applied in the early church while the real apostolic doctrine was still fresh in the minds of those who had heard the apostles, or who at least had heard the immediate disciples of the apostles.

So, all of this leads to what was perhaps the prime criterion, viz ., “Was this book produced by an apostle or under the auspices of an apostle, and does it obviously correspond in doctrine to what the apostles themselves taught when they were on earth as Gods divinely appointed spokesmen?”

An example of the application of this criterion is the Gospel of Thomas, a book which did not attain canonical status. The latter work bears the name of an apostle, but it is not in accord with what the apostles taught. The book for many years was clearly recognized as a Gnostic book, a forgery representing the heresy of Gnosticism. The fact that an apostle’s name is attached to it does not mean that it was apostolic because the content does not agree with apostolic doctrine.14

THE NEW TESTAMENT BOOKS

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were accepted as canonical quite early with very few question or problem. Matthew was an apostle, one of the Twelve. Mark’s gospel was recognized because of his connection with the apostle Peter. Luke’s writings were accepted due to his association with the apostle Paul. The Gospel of John was in some dispute early because there was some question concerning the fact that it was written much later than the other gospels. Further, John’s gospel took longer to be accepted universally by the church because some Gnostic heretics used it to support their doctrines.15 But, by the late second century it was widely accepted in the church and became a very import ant part of some of the doctrinal debates which occurred shortly thereafter in the early church.

Acts is mentioned very few times in early church history in the writings of the Fathers
until about the time of Irenaeus,16 but from that time on the book of Acts was firmly fixed as part of the Christian Scriptures. Acts was written by Luke, a protégé of the apostle Paul.

Hebrews is not included here because we are of the opinion that it was not written by Paul. A difference in style exists in Hebrews that is clearly not Paul’s. Further, the author of Hebrews says that he received his information from the first generation of Christians (cf. Heb 2:3). Paul would contend that he did not receive his information this way (cf. Gal 1 and 2).

Paul’s letters were circulated and accepted very early as a group. Various theories have been proposed as to how and when this took place.17 For example, one theory was put forth by E. J. Goodspeed, who argued that by about A.D. 80-85 the entire Pauline corpus was probably being circulated among the churches as a p art of Holy Scripture.18 2 Peter 3:15 mentions that Paul s epistles were recognized as “Scripture,” along with the other Scriptures, probably the OT.19

Hebrews was not accepted so early. The book was disputed for centuries. No one was entirely sure who wrote Hebrews, and we still do not know its author. Origen, an early church Father, said that God alone knows who wrote Hebrews.20 So, it is easy to see why Hebrews was somewhat disputed because no one knew who wrote it; the author did not ascribe his name. And, no sure tradition exists concerning who wrote it. Many people have been suggested (e.g., Paul, Apollos, Luke, Barnabas, Priscilla), but no one is sure. However, the book was recognized because of its correspondence with apostolic doctrine. Even though the books authorship is unknown, it is easy to see that it is in accord with apostolic teaching.21

The General Epistles are called such because they were not written to a particular church or known person. Consider, for example, the Johannine letters. 1 John was considered obviously the work of the apostle John and was accepted from the time of Irenaeus, i.e. about the time of the Gospel of John. The epistles of 2 and 3 John were unknown to much of the church until rather late. Nonetheless, these epistles were eventually accepted.

Of the Petrine letters, 1 Peter was accepted early with no major problems. However, of all the NT books, 2 Peter was disputed more than any other writing. The primary problem is that the Greek style of 2 Peter is tot ally different from the refined Greek style of 1 Peter. And thus, the question arose: “How could the same man have written both epistles in such totally different Greek?” No problem is present in English, but in Greek there is a definite difference of style. However, the latter fact does not necessarily mean that these letters are not from the same man.

Though Silas was the letter-carrier of 1 Peter (5:12), he still could have exercised some sort of secretarial mediation for Peter because he was with the apostle.22Silas, a cultured and educated man, may well have given some assistance to Peter in wording his statements into better Greek. This practice is not inconsistent with inspiration because it was under the control of Peter and the final product was supervised and approved by Peter. This might explain the more classical, cultured style of 1 Peter as contrasted with the rougher, plainer style of 2 Peter.

Some objected to 2 Peter because of it s similarity with the book of Jude. However, this fact does not mean that 2 Peter was not inspired, but that both men were led by the Spirit of God to write about the same things.

James was disputed in the early church down until the early fourth century because of the Jewish flavor of the book. There is little distinctive Christian doctrine in the book. The most famous (later) opponent of James was Martin Luther. He called the book a “right strawy epistle.” The great problem that Luther saw was that James presented a seeming discrepancy with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of Law (e.g., cf. Rom 3:28). James 2:24 says that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” However, this problem, though to some degree difficult to interpret, does not mean that James should be counted as non-canonical.

James speaks of something a little different than does Paul. On the one hand, Paul argues that the works of the Mosaic Law, a Jewish legal righteousness, is neither required by nor contributes to ones salvation. On the other hand, James contends that a genuine faith will produce fruit, i.e., certain righteous act s. If not, then ones salvation can be questioned as to it s authenticity. Thus, no contradiction exists between James and Paul. They are simply speaking on two different aspects of the same thing. Even Martin Luther later came to moderate his views on James.

Jude was slow in being accepted. The letter was not known as readily as the others because of its similarity with 2 Peter, but perhaps most of all because it quotes from or alludes to some noncanonical books (the Assumption of Moses [v. 9], and the Apocalypse of Enoch [v. 14]) known as “pseudepigrapha” (false writings). This matter presented a problem. However, when he cites them Jude does not accept or authenticate these entire books, but rather, agrees with a particular statement within them as true.

Revelation was accepted early in the western church (w. part of the Mediterranean world) and given a very high place. The book was accepted a little slower in the eastern church because some felt that it might have given some comfort to the Montanists, heretics who were teaching all sort s of esoteric experiences, visions, and dreams, which were contrary to sound doctrine.23 This fear, however, was an unrealized one. Shortly thereafter, Revelation was accepted by the eastern church as the obvious work of the apostle John.

PIVOTAL DATES

What were the pivotal dates for the recognition and the formal establishment of the NT canon? In the eastern church the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, is dated A.D. 367. This document was the bishop’s letter to the faithful written on the occasion of Passover. In this letter Athanasius mentions 27 books of the NT accepted by the church. In the western church the Council of Carthage met in A.D. 397. Part of the Councils work was to publish the names of the 27 books held to be Scripture by the church of Jesus Christ. When these two dates are put together, it is evident that by the middle-to-late 4th century there was little or no question concerning the 27 canonical books of the NT. No really serious question has ever risen
since.

CONCLUSION

One might say that, in a sense, NT canonicity is not quite as certain as OT canonicity in that the Lord while on earth did not specifically mention the NT books like he did the OT books. However, he did seem to “pre-authenticate” the NT when he said to his disciples: “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:25-26).

One should also understand that not all the books that the apostles wrote became Scripture. For example, Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians, two of which are lost and not included in the canon. Nonetheless, the NT that we possess today is Gods inerrant word and the result of his sovereign oversight and provision. The NT can be trusted as entirely true. By Gods grace and providence, the early church recognized those books that were inspired of God and included them in the NT canon.

Terry L. W ilder is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception (University Press of America).

NOTES

1 I am indebted to my former professor, Dr. William E. Bell, Jr., Senior Professor of Religion at Dallas Baptist University, who first stirred up in me an interest on the subject of canonicity. This article is dedicated to him because it greatly reflects and is based on his excellent teaching on the subject. Any errors, however, should be counted as mine. For standard works on the New Testament canon see F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988); Bruce M. Metzger The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1988).

2 For the authority of the apostles of Jesus Christ see Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 119-20, 256-59; and Terry L. Wilder, Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004), 165-216.

3 Cf. the section on heresies and the development of the canon in Metzger, Canon of the NT, 75-106.
4 Cf. Metzger, Canon of the NT, 106-08.
5 Cf. the very helpful sections on the apostolate, tradition, and tradition as Scripture in Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the NT, 12-24. 6 In other words, the church “recognized” the books to be included in the NT canon; it did not “produce” the canon.

7 There were other related criteria as well, e.g. antiquity, but the following three seemed to be the main ones. Cf. Bruce’s section on the criteria of canonicity in Canon of Scripture, 255-69.

8 Cf. Bruce, Canon of Scripture, Metzger, Canon of the NT, 253; Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 12-15.

9 On the distinction between the “apostles of Jesus Christ” and the “apostles of the churches” (cf. 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25) see E. E. Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 66, 89-91.

10 Cf. Col 4:14. Tertullian spoke of Luke as “not an apostle but apostolic” (Against Marcion, 4.2.4; cited from Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 257).

11 See Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15) who records Papias’ remarks on Mark’s gospel that “Mark became Peter’s interpreter . . .” 12 Cf. Metzger, Canon of the NT, 253-54.

13 This criterion is what Metzger calls “conformity to the rule of faith” (Canon of the NT, 251-53), while Bruce calls it “orthodoxy” (Canon of Scripture, 260-61, 279-80).

14 Despite the trend today by critics to recognize the Gospel of Thomas as Scripture, I am still convinced that, despite several points of contact with the canonical Gospels, it is a Gnostic forgery written later than the NT Gospels.

15 Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 128.
16 Irenaeus was an early church Father, the Bishop of Gaul in France in the latter part of the second century.

17 See the brief survey of these theories in E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 210-14.

18 See E. J. Goodspeed, New Solutions to New Testament Problems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 1-64.

19 These remarks occur at a very early date, given that 2 Peter was written in the mid to late A.D. 60s, a date hotly contested by critical scholars.

20 See Origen’s remarks on Hebrews in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.25.11-14.

21 Though Origen did not know who wrote Hebrews, he also said, “. . . the thoughts are the apostle’s, but that the style and composition belong to one who called to mind the apostle’s teachings and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said.” In other words, he recognized the book as apostolic in content.

22 See the excellent article by E. Randolph Richards, “Silvanus Was Not Peter’s Secretary,” JETS Vol. 43, No. 3 (Sept 2000): 417-32. Richards maintains that 1 Pet 5:12 identifies Silas (Silvanus) solely as the apostle’s letter-carrier, and not his secretary. He goes on to say that Silas still could have been Peter’s amanuensis, but not on the basis of 1 Pet 5:12 (432).

23 Metzger (Canon of the NT, 102) notes that Montanism’s influence on the church led to “a mistrust of apocalyptic literature, including even the Johannine Apocalypse.”

 

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