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

Don Stewart :: Why Did It Take Three Hundred Years for the First New Testament List to Be Drawn Up?

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Why Did It Take Three Hundred Years for the First New Testament List to Be Drawn Up?

Are the Right Books in the New Testament? – Question 7

The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were completed before the end of the first century A.D. These particular books, and these books only, were accepted as authoritative Scripture by believers from the moment they were written. The four gospels and Paul’s letters circulated as units from the early days of the church.

If this is the case, then why was it not until the year A.D. 367 that we have the first formal list of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament? Why did it take so long for the entire church to recognize these books as divinely given if they were immediately recognized when first written?

There are a number of observations that we can make as to why the entire twenty-seven New Testament documents took several centuries to be accepted by the entire church. They are as follows:

1. At an Early Stage, Oral Tradition Took Precedence Over Written Works

First, in the early years of the church, the oral tradition was given precedence over the written tradition. The people were probably more interested in the actual words of the Apostles than their writings. However, this is not to say that the writings of the apostles were considered anything less than authoritative Scripture—they were considered divine. Yet, while the apostles of Christ were still alive, and continued to speak face-to-face with believers, their personal appearances would have been preferred over their written testimony.

We find some examples in the New Testament where the writer expressed his desire to be face to face with the recipients of his letter. For example, John wrote:

Well, I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to say it in a letter. For I hope to visit you soon and to talk with you face to face. Then our joy will be complete. (2 John 12 NLT)

John wanted to have a face-to-face meeting with the believers rather than putting these things that he had to say into writing.

The apostle Paul wrote something similar to the Galatians. He expressed his desire to be with them in person. He wrote:

I wish I could be with you now and change my tone of voice, because I am perplexed about you. (Galatians 4:20 NET)

The writer to the Hebrews also expressed the desire to visit those to whom he had written. He wrote the following:

I especially ask you to pray that I may be restored to you very soon... Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, bear with my message of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you briefly. You should know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he comes soon, he will be with me when I see you. (Hebrews 13:19, 22, 23 NET)

Therefore, it seems that the oral testimony was preferred to the written testimony while the apostles were still alive. The immediate need for a canon of Scripture was not felt.

2. There Were Long Distances Between the Various Destinations Where the New Testament Documents Were Sent

There was also the problem of distance. The distances between the various churches in the Roman Empire made for slow communication. It took some time to verify exactly which writings were authoritative and which were not. This would surely be the case for some of the smaller letters such as Second John, Third John, and Jude. The believers wanted to be certain that they were reading, copying, and circulating the authoritative writings.

3. There Was No Center of Authority Where Decisions Were Made

In addition, there was no center of authority where decisions were made about issues such as these. Unlike the Jews and the Old Testament Scriptures, the church was not centered in one geographical area. This would have made a consensus of opinion as to which books belonged in Scripture slower to appear.

These three factors would have slowed down the process of any consensus from believers of a written New Testament canon.

4. There Was Remarkable Unity among Believers

In the end, there was remarkable unity among believers as to the identity of the sacred writings that would make up the New Testament. It is a fact of history that these twenty-seven books, and only these twenty-seven books, have been recognized by the church from the beginning to be God’s Holy Word; the New Testament Scripture. Consequently, it was not some organization that declared which books belonged in Scripture, but rather the books seemingly selected themselves.

Summary – Question 7
Why Did It Take Three Hundred Years for the First New Testament List to Be Drawn Up?

While it is often charged that it took the church some three hundred years to recognize the New Testament canon, this is simply not the case.

The books were recognized immediately as authoritative. Reasons for the slow recognition of the canon by the entire church include the preference of living witnesses during the apostolic age and the generation that followed, the long distances between the destinations the letters were sent, and the fact that there was no center of authority where decisions were made.

During this entire process, there was remarkable unity among believers.

What Happened Historically to Cause the Twenty-Seven Books of the New Testament to Be Recognized as Scripture? ← Prior Section
What Are Some of the Differences Between the Recognition of the Old Testament Canon and the Recognition of the New Testament Canon? Next Section →
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