Click to Change

Return to Top

Return to Top

Printer Icon


Prior Section Next Section Back to Commentaries Author Bio & Contents
The Blue Letter Bible
Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: What Happened after the Apostolic Era That Brought about the Need for a New Testament Canon?

toggle collapse
Choose a new font size and typeface

What Happened after the Apostolic Era That Brought about the Need for a New Testament Canon?

Are the Right Books in the New Testament? – Question 5

While the New Testament gave witness of sacred writings that could be added as further Scripture, it was not until the middle of the second century that believers began to feel the need for an authoritative list of these sacred writings.

There were a number of historical forces that brought about the need for a New Testament canon; an authoritative list of writings. They include the following:

1. Oral Tradition Was Used Less and Less: the Need for Something Written Became More Important

There are strong reasons to believe that the disciples of Jesus would have written some things about Him immediately after His ascension into heaven. New believers needed to be taught and the apostles could not be everywhere.

However, while the Apostles were still alive, their living voice was preferred over written Scripture. Consequently, there was no immediate need for a fixed canon of Scripture. Even after the Apostles died there were many believers who had heard their teachings first-hand. However, when that second generation of Christians began to die out, the need arose for a list of books that would be recognized as authoritative Scripture.

2. There Was the Problem with the Gnostics Who Had Their Own Scripture

One of the first threats to the Christian faith was Gnosticism. The Gnostics had their own Scriptures that rivaled the canonical books. It was important that their false doctrine did not infiltrate the church. Therefore, it had to be made clear which books were from the Apostles and which were not.

3. The Heretic Marcion Produced His Own Canon

There was also an attack on the genuine writings. In the second century, there was an anti-Semitic heretic named Marcion who constructed his own canon of Scripture. He rejected the entire Old Testament and all of the New Testament writings apart from ten of Paul’s letters and an altered version of the gospel of Luke. This caused the church to face the question of the extent of the canon.

4. The Rise of Montanism: a Movement That Claimed to Receive Divine Revelation

Montanism, named after its leader Montanus, arose in the mid-second century A.D. According to Montanus, the prophetic gift was to be permanent in the church. Montanus claimed to receive further revelation from the Lord and believed himself to be a New Testament prophet. The fact that he claimed there could still be further revelation from God, after the time of the Apostles, caused the church to make certain there was a true standard to judge all teaching. From the Scripture, it was found that even the New Testament prophets were subject to the authority of the apostles. Paul wrote:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. (1 Corinthians 14:29-30 NKJV)

Paul listed the gift, or office, of apostle before that of a prophet. He wrote:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. (Ephesians 4:11 NKJV)

The church rejected the claim of Montanus that he could speak on the same level as the apostles; for the apostles alone had been granted Christ’s authority. The faith had been once and for all delivered by the apostles of Christ and their associates. Nothing else was necessary.

Because the Montanists used the Book of Revelation extensively, the Orthodox Church in Syria overreacted by denying its canonical status.

Previously, they had accepted its authority. The confusion caused by Montanism was another factor that brought about the need for a list of authoritative works.

5. The New Testament Was Translated into Other Languages: Which Books Were to Be Translated?

By the year A.D. 170, two translations of the New Testament had been made—the Old Latin and the Syriac. Obviously, to make a translation of New Testament books from one language to another, it would have been necessary to know the limit of the sacred writings. It is necessary to know which books to translate.

6. There Was Persecution of Believers: There Was a Need to Know Which Books to Protect

Persecution was also rampant. The worst persecution occurred in A.D. 303 when the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered that all sacred books be burned, the churches to be destroyed, and the believers to lose their civil rights. This was another factor that led to the need for an authoritative list of writings from Jesus’ followers. Believers needed to know which writings to save from destruction.

7. The Edict of Constantine to Produce Fifty Copies of the Scripture

In A.D. 325 the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered fifty copies of the Scripture to be produced. Consequently, it was necessary to know the exact extent of the Scriptures in order to produce copies. Unfortunately we do not have any list of which books were used to make up the New Testament for these fifty copies.

8. The Popularity of the Diatessaron: a Harmony of the Four Gospels

The word “diatessaron” literally means “through the four.” A man named Tatian composed a work in which he combined the four canonical gospels into one harmonious work.

Thus, the Diatessaron was a harmony of the four gospels. In the Syrian Church, this work actually took the place of the four canonical gospels for a time. Eventually the Syrian Church restored the four gospels to the canon. However, the fact that they were temporarily removed became another motivating factor in having a list of sacred writings.

9. The Change from the Scroll to the Codex

Another factor that made a collection of New Testament books easier was the move from scrolls to a codex. The codex was a book form. As writings began to be produced in the form of a codex rather than a scroll, it became easier to collect various writings under one cover.

There is something else—the people needed to know which books were to be put in the one cover!

Therefore, each of these nine factors brought about the need for a list of further written Scripture; a “new” Testament.

What Was the Relationship Between the Old and the New?

With a completed Old Testament canon, there arose the need to recognize a New Testament canon. The believers in Jesus had four possible responses with respect to the words of Jesus and the Old Testament.

First, they could have added the words of Jesus to the existing Old Testament. Second, they could have ignored the authority of the Old Testament, and displaced them with the words of Jesus. Third, they could have used the Old Testament alone as their authority.

Finally, they could have added a New Testament to complement that which had been revealed in the Old Testament. Based upon principles already found in the New Testament, this last option is what they decided to do.

Summary – Question 5
What Happened after the Apostolic Era That Brought about the Need for a New Testament Canon?

The need for an authoritative list of books that would testify to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ became apparent by the middle of the second century. A number of factors made this evident.

The first generation of Christians had all passed away and the second generation of Christians were in the process of dying out. The people had lost all contact with eyewitnesses of Jesus and His Apostles. Since the people could no longer hear from those who had heard Jesus and His apostles, a written testimony was necessary.

The Gnostics, one of the first enemies of Christianity, had their own set of sacred books. A clear choice between their writings and the authoritative writings was necessary.

There was also the appearance of a canon by the heretic Marcion. He created his own perverted canon. The church had to respond to his false teaching about the canon.

The Montanists with their belief that God was still divinely inspiring believers was another factor for the need for an authoritative list of books.

Bible translation was another factor. Because Jesus commanded His disciples to preach the gospel to the entire world, the Greek New Testament was translated into other languages. However, a canon of Scripture would be necessary before the translation process could begin.

Persecution was another important motivation. The possession of Scripture was outlawed under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The penalty could include death. This caused the believers to make certain which books were holy and which were not.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the state religion, he ordered fifty copies of the Scripture to be made.

Consequently, it had to be determined just exactly what works constituted Scripture. There is also the fact that the Diatessaron temporarily replaced the Four Gospels in the Syrian Church by creating a harmony of the four gospels. This was another factor that created the need of an authoritative list of writings.

There was also the change of the form in which the writings were made. Previously, all written documents were on single scrolls. With the popularity of the codex, or book form, all the writings could be placed into one bound book. Thus, it is important to know what books to place within the one bound volume.

All of these factors brought about the need for a New Testament canon of Scripture.

Does Each Book of the New Testament Claim to Be the Authoritative Word of God? ← Prior Section
What Happened Historically to Cause the Twenty-Seven Books of the New Testament to Be Recognized as Scripture? Next Section →
BLB Searches
Search the Bible

Advanced Options

Other Searches

Multi-Verse Retrieval

Daily Devotionals

Blue Letter Bible offers several daily devotional readings in order to help you refocus on Christ and the Gospel of His peace and righteousness.

Daily Bible Reading Plans

Recognizing the value of consistent reflection upon the Word of God in order to refocus one's mind and heart upon Christ and His Gospel of peace, we provide several reading plans designed to cover the entire Bible in a year.

One-Year Plans

Two-Year Plan


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.