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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are Some Books Missing from the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: Were There Local Canons in the Early Years of the Church?

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Question 8

Were There Local Canons in the Early Years of the Church?

In the early years of the New Testament church, there would have been local canons, or lists of authoritative Scripture, that represented the usage of a particular geographical area. As the Scripture was copied and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, certain areas would not have received copies of all of the present New Testament books. Indeed the New Testament was written over a period of perhaps forty years or more. This, of necessity, would have certain churches having an incomplete canon.

The evidence for these local canons can possibly be seen in a number of ways.

  1. Paul’s Letters Circulated as a Collection

    We know that a collection of the letters of Paul circulated at an early date. Peter wrote:

    And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NET)

    We do not know the exact identity of the books that were in this collection of Paul’s writings, only that it was a collection.

    Paul may have been referring to these books when he wrote the following to Timothy:

    When you come, bring with you the cloak I left in Troas with Carpas and the scrolls, especially the parchment ones. (2 Timothy 4:13 NET)

    The scroll may refer to the Old Testament scrolls, or to his own writings. We just do not know.

    Whatever the case may be, we do know that certain churches would have had a collection of Paul’s writings at an early date.

  2. The Seven Churches of Asia Were to Have a Copy of the Book of Revelation

    We know that the seven churches of Asia Minor were to have copies of the Book of Revelation. We read the following command in the first chapter of Revelation:

    I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, saying: “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches—to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:10-11 NET)

    These seven churches would have had at least one copy of Revelation. Beyond that, we do not know which of the other New Testament books they possessed.

  3. Some Churches May Have Been Using Non-Canonical Books

    There is something else. These congregations may also have had, for a short period of time, other writings that they considered to be helpful, but were not on the same level as the canonical books. The evidence for this is as follows:

    Two of the most ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that still exist, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, contain books that are not part of the New Testament. Codex Sinaiticus, copied about A.D. 350, contains the Shepherd of Hermas and the Letter of Barnabas. Codex Alexandrinus, copied about a century later, contains 1 and 2 Clement. None of these four works are part of New Testament Scripture. Their addition in these manuscripts may indicate they were part of a local canon at the time.

    However, this is not necessarily the case. One could also argue that these books were copied because they were considered helpful to believers but not necessarily on the same level as Holy Scripture. Indeed, these works are placed after the canonical books. This may indicate their non-canonical status.

  4. The Muratorian Canon Lists Separately Books That Are Not in the Present Canon

    The Muratorian Canon is a fragmentary list of New Testament books that were known in Rome around A.D. 200. Within the list there is a distinction made between those that can be read in public worship services and those that should only be read privately. It has been argued that the Muratorian Canon represented the canon that was held by the church at Rome at this particular time.

    As time went on, it became more and more important that each local congregation had the correct contents of the New Testament canon. Discussions about the exact nature of Jesus Christ were conducted as early as the second century. It became obvious that there had to be some sort of authoritative list to appeal to in the various theological issues that would appear. Hence, the need for a canon of Scripture was universal among the churches.

Summary - Question 8
Were There Local Canons in the Early Years of the Church?

When the New Testament was in the process of being written, the books were copied and circulated among the churches. It is clear that some churches would have copies of more documents than other churches.

We do not really know which church possessed which documents. However, we do know that a collection of the writings of Paul circulated at an early date. We also know that seven churches in Asia Minor would have received a copy of the Book of Revelation.

Some of these local canons may, for a time, have contained books that were not part of the New Testament canon. From sources like the two ancient Greek manuscripts, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus, we can determine that by the fourth century some churches eventually received all twenty-seven New Testament documents. It would have taken longer for churches in other geographical areas to obtain the entire New Testament canon.

There is also the possibility that there were some local areas that used books for a certain time which were not part of the divinely inspired New Testament.

Were There Some Divinely Authoritative Writings That Were Not Included in Holy Scripture? (Other Letters from Paul) ← Prior Section
Were Certain Books Left Out of the New Testament Canon? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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