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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: What Happened Historically to Cause the Twenty-Seven Books of the New Testament to Be Recognized as Scripture?

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Question 6

What Happened Historically to Cause the Twenty-Seven Books of the New Testament to Be Recognized as Scripture?

The books that make up the New Testament canon of Scripture were used authoritatively by the church from the very beginning. However, like the Old Testament, their collection, and distinction from other written documents, was a gradual and continuous process that took a couple of centuries to complete.

In the year A.D. 367, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, as was his custom, sent out an Easter letter to the churches in Egypt. In this particular letter, he specified the twenty-seven books that make up the present New Testament as the only sacred books that were to be recognized as part of a “New” Testament canon.

As far as we know, this is the first formal recognition of these specific books as the divinely inspired New Testament Scripture. This brings up a number of important questions. What was the process that led the church to come to this understanding? How did we get from the time when the Apostles wrote the New Testament books to the recognition by Athanasius? What do we know about the historical forces that led to the formation and acceptance of the New Testament canon? A number of important observations need to be made.

We Can Divide the Developments into Four General Periods

First, for convenience sake, we can place the development of the New Testament canon in four basic periods. They are: the Apostolic Era (A.D. 30-100); the second generation of Christians (A.D. 100-150); the move from the oral to written Word and the period of examination (A.D. 150-350); and the time of formal recognition (A.D. 350-397). While these categories overlap, they do provide a general framework to understand how the books of the New Testament developed from originally being written to their formal recognition by the church.

Period 1: The Apostolic Era (A.D. 30-100)

The first period we want to examine is the time when the Apostles of Christ, as well as other eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, were still living. This would be approximately from A.D. 30-100.

A. The New Testament Had Its Origin in Jesus Christ

The New Testament is all about Jesus Christ; He is the promised Messiah and the Savior of the world. The entire story centers on him. Once He ascended into heaven after His resurrection, His twelve disciples, and those whom He specially chose, faithfully passed on the things that Jesus said and did. They were the authoritative interpreters of His message and ministry.

B. The Apostles Doctrine Was Taught

The believers in the early church were taught the doctrine of the Apostles. The doctrine, or teaching, of the Apostles had the authority of the Lord Jesus behind it. The Bible says the early church learned the doctrine of the apostles from the very beginning. The Book of Acts explains it this way:

And they [the believers] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42 ESV)

The Apostle Paul commanded Timothy to hold on to the sound teachings of Jesus. He wrote the following:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Timothy 1:13-14 ESV)

Paul said that authoritative tradition was to be passed on to others. He also wrote to Timothy:

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2 NASB)

The New English Translation renders this verse as follows:

And what you heard me say in the presence of many others as witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be competent to teach others as well. (2 Timothy 2:2 NET)

At the beginning, this tradition was passed on by word of mouth. However, soon after Jesus’ ascension, these traditions about Him were committed to writing. These writings were copied, recopied, read out loud, circulated, and exchanged between churches. The result was the New Testament. The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament were written during a period of approximately sixty years (A.D. 40-96).

C. The Authoritative Writings of Paul Were Collected Early

The New Testament writings were collected at a relatively early date. We know that there was an early collection of Paul’s writings. 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)

Peter does not tell us exactly how many letters of Paul were known and circulated. However, what this does tell us is that before Peter’s death, some of the letters of Paul circulated as a group.

There is also an early existing Greek manuscript that has a collection of Paul’s letters. This manuscript is known as P46. It contains eight of Paul’s letters plus the Book of Hebrews. It has been recently argued that this manuscript should be dated in the late first century; that is, before A.D. 100. If this dating is correct, it would give further evidence of the early authority that Paul’s writings had in the church.

Even if it is not to be dated in the first century, this collection of Paul’s letters is still an early testimony to the authority of his writings. What we do know for certain is that the writings of Paul were circulating as a unit during the time the New Testament was still being written.

D. The Four Gospels Were Soon Brought Together

At first, the four gospels were circulating as independent writings among believers. However, by the beginning of the second century, they were brought together and began to be circulated as a unit. This demonstrates the acceptance of these works, and only these works, as the authoritative explanation of the life of Jesus Christ.

E. There Was a Distinction Between Authoritative and Non-Authoritative Writings

Even at an early date, there was already a distinction being made between the authoritative writings of the apostles and their associates, and the writings of others who did not possess Jesus’ unique authority. We read about this in the Book of Revelation. It says:

I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19 RSV)

Consequently, the idea of authoritative, versus non-authoritative, “New” Testament writings was made at an early date.

F. The Testimony of Clement of Rome

The earliest written work outside of the New Testament that mentions some of the New Testament writings is the work of Clement (A.D. 95). He was a contemporary with the Apostles.

Clement was part of a group of writers known as the “Apostolic Fathers.” Each of them had some personal knowledge of Jesus’ apostles, but was not part of that group.

In fact, Clement is mentioned by name by the apostle Paul. We read the following in Philippians:

Yes, I say also to you, true companion, help them. They have struggled together in the gospel ministry along with me and Clement and my other coworkers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3 NET)

In a letter that Clement wrote to the church at Corinth, he refers to a number of Paul’s writings; Ephesians, Romans, First Corinthians, First Timothy, and Titus. Clement also cites the Book of Hebrews, and First Peter.

In addition, Clement quotes parts of verses that are found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is not certain that he is citing the written text of the gospels, or merely quoting these sayings of the Lord from memory. While he refers to the Old Testament as “Scripture,” he does not call any New Testament writings by that specific term. However, he does cite them in such a way as to recognize their authority. It is clear that the words of Jesus are at least as authoritative as the Old Testament prophets.

What is also clear from Clement’s own writings is that they do not carry the same authority as the writings of the apostles. He realized the distinction between his words and those of Jesus and the apostles.

Summary of Period 1: There Was No Pressing Need for a Canon

The believers in Jesus shared the same sacred Scripture with the Jews; the Old Testament. However, the coming of Jesus into the world made a new Scripture necessary; a set of writings that would testify to Him. Thus, in this first period, the New Testament documents were written, copied, and circulated among the people of God. The spoken and written words of the apostles were considered as the authoritative words of Christ. The letters of Paul, as well as the four gospels, circulated as units. Consequently, they held absolute authority. The concept of authoritative writings for a “New” Testament was already present. However, since eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus were still alive, no authoritative canon of Scripture was absolutely necessary.

Period 2: The Second Generation of Christians (A.D. 100-150)

In the early years of the church, there was no New Testament canon of Scripture. While authoritative documents were written and circulated, as far as we know, no collection of these documents had been made. Authority was in the living Apostles and their doctrine of Jesus Christ. After the Apostles died, their teachings were held as having the highest authority. The written documents became more important as time went on.

However, the second generation of Christians seemed to prefer the oral testimony to the written as long as there were living witnesses to the teachings of the apostles. A number of important things occurred during this fifty year period. They include the following:

The Writings of Those Who Came after the Apostles Were Not Uniquely Authoritative

The second generation of Christians is known as the “Apostolic Fathers.” It is clear that the writings of these men, who lived after the time of the apostles, did not have the same authority as those whom Jesus personally chose. It was only the apostles who were chosen and commissioned by Jesus. Since those who came after the apostles were not eyewitnesses to the events in Jesus’ life, and were not given His unique authority, they can add nothing to God’s revelation to humanity.

In fact, the Apostolic Fathers made a distinction between their writings and those of the apostles. They recognized that their writings were not authoritative in the same sense as the writings of Jesus’ apostles. Consequently, they looked back upon that which was spoken or written by these men.

This is a further indication that believers did not establish the canon of Scripture but merely recognized the words of those whom God divinely appointed to speak and write His Word. It was the authority of Jesus Christ which revealed the extent of the canon. We can consider the following evidence from this period:

The Testimony of Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch was also one of the Apostolic Fathers. Like Clement, he recognized the authority of Jesus and the apostles.

In the year A.D. 115, Ignatius wrote seven letters on his way to being thrown to the lions. In his letters, Ignatius made the distinction between his writings, and those of the apostles. In his letter to the Romans, he made the following comparison between himself and Peter and Paul. He wrote:

I do not enjoin you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles, I am a convict; they were free, but I am a slave to this very hour. (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, 4.3)

Ignatius also uses the phrase, “It is written,” as well as the word, “Scripture,” in referring to a written gospel. He also emphasizes that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority. Indeed, His authority is greater than the Old Testament.

In his writings, Ignatius acknowledged a number of New Testament books, yet he never considered his own writings to have any divine authority. He realized that there was a definite boundary between the time of the apostles and afterward.

Second Clement

The written gospel is also referred to as Scripture in a work known as Second Clement, or the Second Letter of Clement. This document, dated anywhere from A.D. 100 to A.D. 150, is not the work of the biblical Clement; the author is not known. This document is actually the contents of a sermon. In this sermon, the gospel writings are again referred to as Scripture. Like the other early writings that have come down to us, the words of Jesus and the apostles are considered to be at least as authoritative as the Old Testament Scripture.

The Letter of Barnabas

The letter of Barnabas was composed about A.D. 130. Although attributed to Barnabas, the traveling companion of Paul, it was not written by him. It is usually assumed to have been written about the middle of the second century.

In this work of, (Barnabas 4:14) the formula “it is written” is used in reference to the New Testament where Barnabas cites Matthew 22:14. Again, this may be an indication of its view of the authority of the New Testament. However, his work is not much help in understanding the extent of the New Testament canon.

The Testimony of Polycarp

Polycarp was another of the “Apostolic Fathers.” He was a personal disciple of the apostle John. In his letter to the Philippians, he combined an Old Testament reference, Psalm 4:4, and a New Testament quotation, Ephesians 4:26. He introduced it with the phrase, “as it is said in the Scripture.” This is found in his [Polycarp's] letter to the Philippians in 12:4.

This seems to indicate that Polycarp considered Paul’s writings on the same level as the Old Testament; divinely authoritative. If this is the case, then we have another early witness to Paul’s authority.

A Possible Early Witness to the New Testament: the Gospel of Truth

The earliest possible reference we have for the New Testament canon of Scripture comes from a work called the Gospel of Truth (A.D. 140-145). A man named Valentinus probably wrote this work in the city of Rome. The writer is well-acquainted with the four gospels, the letters of Paul, Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation. He may also have been aware of the Book of Acts, 1 Peter and 1 John, and perhaps other New Testament books. He cites these writings as authoritative Scripture. His seems to be the earliest known witness to a “New” Testament.

The Gospel of Truth seems to show that before the middle of the second century, a collection of New Testament writings was known in Rome and was accepted as authoritative. These writings are virtually identical with our New Testament. This evidence alone gives us the New Testament in the middle of the first half of the second century.

The Heretic Marcion Produced an Alternative Canon

Another reason why an authoritative canon had to be universally acknowledged was because of the work of the heretic Marcion. He created his own canon during this period. Marcion accepted only the Gospel of Luke (minus the first two chapters) and ten of Paul’s letters. In his list of Paul’s letters, he called the letter to the Ephesians, “to the Laodiceans.” Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament and anything in the New Testament that he considered to be “too Jewish.” His Scripture consisted of what he called the gospel and the apostle.

It is popular in some circles to assume that the church created the canon in response to Marcion. However, this is certainly not the case. His heretical canon was a reaction to the canon the church already received and accepted. The church was not reacting to him; he was reacting to the church! Paul’s letters were circulating as an authoritative collection and were considered to be Scripture during his own lifetime. The four gospels also circulated as a unit at an early date. Thus, any list or canon that Marcion would have created would have been in response to the authoritative writings about Jesus; namely the four gospels, and the authoritative explanation of Jesus’ ministry, Paul.

Summary of Period 2: No Formal Canon Was Made at This Time in History

The New Testament documents became more widely known during this period. They were cited as authoritative by Christians. In addition, we find that the writings of other Christians during this period were not assumed to be of the same weight as the writings of the apostles. While these other writings could be useful and edifying, they were not the Word of God. Only the apostolic writings carried this unique authority of Christ. Letters from such people as Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement lack divine authority and fail to add to God’s revelation. However, the early church, at this time, made no formal establishment of a new canon of Scripture. Neither did they speak of a canon. They did not seem concerned about the issue. Various churches had portions of the New Testament writings and this seemed to be satisfactory to them.

Period 3: The Move from the Oral to Written Word and the Time of Examination (A.D. 150-350)

During the next period, the church moved away from the oral tradition to the written Scripture. There were no longer any living witnesses to the words of the Apostles. The writings were now the only authoritative source of teaching about Jesus Christ. These writings began to be closely examined. Some of the important events that occurred during this period include the following:

The Term New Testament Is First Used to Describe the Sacred Writings

By the year A.D. 170, at the latest, the concept of New Testament Scripture was firmly established among believers. The contents that were undisputed include the following writings: the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John. There were still some questions regarding the authority of the other writings that would eventually make up the New Testament. These issues would be settled later.

Independent of each other, and writing at about the same time, two men, Tertullian of Carthage writing in Latin, and Clement of Alexandria writing in Greek, made the first clear uses of the term, “New Testament” to refer to the written documents that came from Jesus’ apostles.

This occurred in approximately A.D. 200. Some people have argued for an earlier use of the term, “New Testament” by an unknown writer in the year A.D. 190. However, this reference has been disputed.

There Were Early Translations into Other Languages

The great majority of the New Testament was immediately and universally recognized by all believers. This can be demonstrated by the earliest translations of these sacred books. By the year A.D. 170, two translations of the New Testament had been made; the Old Latin and the Syriac Peshitta. The Old Latin reflected the views of the Western Church while the Syriac Peshitta reflected the Eastern Church. From these two translations, we find that nineteen of the twenty-seven New Testament books are found in both of these translations.

The Syriac Peshitta included all of the present books of the New Testament except 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, while the Old Latin New Testament contains every book except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter.

The books omitted in the Peshitta were originally sent to destinations in the Western part of the Roman Empire. This explains their omission in the Eastern part of the empire. Likewise, the writings omitted from the Old Latin were originally sent to the Eastern part of the Roman Empire.

When the two lists are put together, twenty-six of the present twenty-seven New Testament books are found. Only Second Peter is missing. Eventually, the churches in the East and the West accepted all of these books as well as Second Peter. Therefore, less than one hundred years after the New Testament was completed, the various books were translated and circulating into other languages.

The Muratorian Fragment Is Compiled During This Period

The Muratorian Fragment contains the earliest known list of New Testament writings. This document receives its name from the man who published the text of this list in the year 1740; Italian historian Ludwig Muratori. He discovered an eighth century Latin manuscript that contained a canonical list that is usually dated between A.D. 170 and 200. The books of the New Testament are not only named, a number of observations are made about each book.

This list included all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and one letter of John. The books in the list correspond with the Old Latin translation of the New Testament. The list distinguishes between which books should be used in public worship and which should only be read in private study. This helps us understand the types of distinctions that were used at the time.

The Work of Justin Martyr (Died A.D. 165)

Justin Martyr was an early apologist or defender of the Christian faith. In fact, he is the earliest Christian writer who did not have any personal contact with any of the apostles. He cites each of the four gospels as authoritative, which he called the gospels “memoirs of the apostles.” He calls the Gospel of Mark Peter’s memoirs.” Interestingly, while he cites Luke, he makes it clear that Luke was not one of the apostles. The only other New Testament book he cited as having authority was the Book of Revelation.

Justin described how the worship services functioned during this time in history. He said that each Sunday, a selection was read from the gospels as well as from the writings of the prophets; this would be the Old Testament prophets. Justin viewed the gospels, at the very least, an equal level with the Old Testament prophets insofar as they testified to Jesus.

The Testimony of Irenaeus (A.D. 185)

Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, was associated with Bishop Pothinius, who had personal acquaintance with the first generation of Christians. Therefore, he had a direct link to the apostles. Irenaeus was the main spokesman of the church against the false teachings of Gnosticism. The Gnostics claimed that they had correctly preserved the teachings of the apostles; the church had not. Therefore, the church needed to respond to the Gnostic claims. Scripture played a major role in the response of Irenaeus to the Gnostics. He acknowledged twenty-two books of the New Testament in his various writings.

The Diatessaron of Tatian

Tatian was a disciple of Polycarp who himself was a disciple of the Apostle John. Tatian made a harmony of the four gospels called the “Diatessaron.” This means, “through the four.” The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, served as a basis for his harmony. For a short period of time, the Syrian church actually replaced the four canonical gospels with Tatian’s Diatessaron.

The Writings of Hippolytus (A.D. 170-235)

The writings of the early church father Hippolytus recognized twenty-two books of the New Testament as having divine authority. He cited the majority of the books. He placed these writings on the same level of authority as the books of the Old Testament. There was still some question about Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. While Hippolytus quotes from such works as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the Letter of Barnabas, he does not consider them to be Scripture.

The Writings of Cyril of Jerusalem

Around the year A.D. 315-316, Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of “the divinely authoritative Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments.” He listed the twenty-two books of the Hebrew canon and twenty-six of the twenty-seven New Testament books; only omitting Revelation. He said:

Learn also diligently, and from the Church, what are the books of the Old Testament, and what are those of the New. And, pray, read none of the apocryphal writings. (Cyril, of the Divine Scripture)

Cyril recognized a canon of Scripture which included an Old and a New Testament.

The Writings of Eusebius (A.D. 270-340)

Eusebius of Caesarea is an important witness to the New Testament canon. He divided the writings that claimed some type of biblical authority into four categories. The first category was the books that were accepted by all. This list contained most of the twenty-seven books of the present New Testament Scripture.

The second category consisted of books that were disputed by some. The New Testament books of James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude were in this list.

The third list was of books rejected by the church as spurious. The books in this category included the letter of Barnabas, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Gospel of the Hebrews. The church considered these books as non-authoritative.

The final category consisted of heretical books. These were books that Eusebius encouraged others not to read because the teachings were at odds with that of the Apostles. Interestingly, he has the Book of Revelation in both the accepted and rejected categories. At that time, there was divided opinion about it.

It was during the time of Eusebius that the Roman Empire became “Christianized.” Eusebius informs us that Emperor Constantine ordered fifty copies of the Scriptures to be produced by the best of scribes. To produce copies of authoritative Scripture, there obviously has to be something to copy from. Unfortunately, Eusebius gives us no details of which books were placed in these copies as part of the New Testament. All fifty copies that were produced have seemingly been lost.

Summary of Period 3: the New Testament Begins to Be Recognized and Translated, but There Is No Exact Record as to When These Books Were First Collected

During this period, the New Testament documents were recognized as Scripture and began to be translated into other languages. Commentaries on the New Testament books were also written during this time.

It was during this time that the New Testament documents were separated from other works. The books of the New Testament were acknowledged as being the only authoritative works about the life and ministry of Jesus. There were still some questions around the status of certain books, but there was a general consensus concerning the great majority of the writings.

It was also during this period that Christianity went from a persecuted faith to the official religion of the Roman Empire. Fifty copies of Holy Scripture were made at the direct order of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

We have no record that exists that tells us as to when one particular church collected all twenty-seven books that make up the present New Testament. Any attempt to specify the first time, or the first place, where all the books were gathered together would only be speculation. Therefore, we can only estimate when the books were collected.

This period was characterized by the churches separating the Scripture from other writings. Christianity had now become accepted in the Roman Empire and the production of Scripture was now sanctioned by the government. This being the case, it was crucial to know which books constituted Scripture and which did not.

Period 4: The Time of Formal Recognition of the New Testament (A.D. 350-397)

It was during this period that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament began to be recognized by the church. The consensus was basically the result of other discussions that were taking place. Questions relating to the Trinity, as well as to the exact nature of Jesus Christ, were discussed among Christian leaders. The church was attempting to define what orthodox doctrine was and what was not. To do so, there had to be a consensus of opinion as to which writings could be cited for the support of orthodox doctrine.

Again, we emphasize that these councils did not create the canon of Scripture, but rather formally recognized what the church had believed for some time. No single council or person in authority was responsible for collecting these works and then pronouncing them authoritative. This important point needs to be stressed.

We find the following testimony to the New Testament canon by different people as well as different church councils.

The Council, or Synod, of Laodicea

In approximately A.D. 363, a council, or synod, of about thirty church leaders convened in Laodicea. Among the statements that came out of the council was the order that only certain books were to be read in the churches. This included the Old Testament and twenty-six books of the New Testament. No other books were to be read to believers. The only New Testament book missing from their list was the Book of Revelation.

The Easter Letter of Athanasius (A.D 367)

It had been a custom for the Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt to send out a yearly circular letter to the churches in Egypt informing them on the date of Easter. The letter could also address other concerns of the church.

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, sent out some forty-five letters in his long and distinguished career. What is significant for our study is the Easter letter that he sent out in the year A.D. 367? In this particular Easter letter, Athanasius acknowledged that the present twenty-seven books of the New Testament were the only authoritative writings that God had given in the New Testament era. These writings, combined with the Old Testament, made up God’s Word to humanity. This is the first time, which we are aware of, where the twenty-seven present New Testament books were listed together as God’s authoritative “New” Testament. However, as we have plainly seen, this does not mean it was the first time the church recognized a canon of Scripture existed.

Jerome

The Bible translator and scholar Jerome produced an authorized revision of the Old Latin. Jerome also testified to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as the only divinely authoritative Scripture. When Jerome published the twenty-seven books in his Latin Vulgate edition, it basically settled the issue of the New Testament canon in the Western part of the Roman Empire.

The Testimony of St. Augustine

Saint Augustine was probably the greatest theologian in the early church after the time of the apostles. He also recognized only the present twenty-seven books of the New Testament as sacred Scripture. His testimony, along with that of Jerome, carried great weight in the early church.

The Council of Hippo

The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393), was a local church council. It recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as Holy Scripture. This council was influenced by the teachings of St. Augustine.

The Council of Carthage

The Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) affirmed that the twenty-seven canonical books of the New Testament were to be the only books to be read in the churches as part of an authoritative “New” Testament. It is important to note that there is no indication that any of the church leaders at that time, Athanasius, Jerome, or Augustine, or these councils at Hippo and Carthage, acted in an arbitrary manner. They merely acknowledged the general consensus of belief with regard to the books that had long been considered to be Holy Scripture. These writings had been in use from the beginning and had been always considered to be authoritative by believers.

The Situation Was Less Stable in the Eastern Part of the Empire

From the time of Athanasius, the canon was basically stable in the Western part of the Roman Empire. The situation in Eastern Christianity was somewhat different. The canon in the East was not as stable as in the West. The fourth century Syrian fathers omitted the universal letters and the Book of Revelation. The Book of Hebrews was accepted because it was assumed that Paul wrote it.

All but Seven Writings Were Recognized Early

Therefore, when we look at all the evidence, we find that the concept of a completed New Testament was formulated early in the history of the church. By the end of the second century, all but seven books (Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, James, and Revelation) were recognized as apostolic.

By the end of the fourth century, all twenty-seven books in our present canon were recognized by all the churches of the West.

Summary of Period 4: The Canon Was Formally Recognized

During this last period, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were formally recognized by the church. With a few exceptions, there has been no real questioning of the extent of the canon by those who have genuinely believed in Jesus Christ.

This survey briefly summarizes what happened after the New Testament era toward the recognition of a New Testament canon of Scripture.

Summary - Question 6
What Happened Historically to Cause the Twenty-Seven Books of the New Testament to Be Recognized as Scripture?

It is helpful if we have some idea of the historical process that led to the recognition of the New Testament canon as Holy Scripture. We can place this early history of the New Testament canon into four basic periods. First, there was the apostolic era when the New Testament writings were composed. The documents were written, circulated, read out loud, studied, and cited as authoritative. However, while the apostles were still alive, their living authority was preferred to the writings. The second generation of believers cited the writings of the Apostles as authoritative. Yet, during this time there were people still living that had heard the apostles firsthand.

During the next period there was the move from the oral to written testimony. All of those who had heard the apostles were now dead. The writings were also carefully examined during this period. The need became more and more apparent of some way to separate the authoritative books from other writings.

The final period saw the recognition of the twenty-seven books by both individuals and councils. While the extent of the canon was basically fixed in the West from this time, the church in the East was slower in their recognition.

What Happened after the Apostolic Era That Brought about the Need for a New Testament Canon? ← Prior Section
Why Did It Take Three Hundred Years for the First New Testament List to Be Drawn Up? 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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