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

Don Stewart

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 sacred writings.

There were a number of historical forces that brought about the need for a New Testament canon. They include the following.

1. Oral Tradition Was Used Less And Less

While the Apostles were still alive their living voice was preferred over written Scripture. Even after the Apostles died there were many believers who had heard their teachings first-hand. However when that second generation began to die out the need arose for something more permanent - a written Scripture.

2. There Was The Problem With Gnosticism

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 Canon Of The Heretic Marcion

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

Montanism was another factor that brought about the need for a New Testament canon. The Montanists were a group, led by a man named Montanus who claimed to receive further revelation from the Lord. According to Montanus, the prophetic gift was permanent in the church and that he himself was a New Testament prophet. Because they used the Book of Revelation extensively, the Orthodox Church in Syria reacted by denying the canonical status of Revelation. Previously they had accepted its authority. The confusion caused by Montanism was another factor for a list of authoritative works.

5. The New Testament Was Translated Into Other Languages

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.

6. There Was Persecution Of Believers

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.

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 Diatesseron

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

Because of these factors, the need for an authoritative list of writings became obvious.

The Relationship Of The New Writings To The Old Testament

All of these factors brought about the need for a list of further written Scripture. 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. They could have added the words of Jesus to the existing Old Testament; they could have ignored the authority of the Old Testament and displaced them with the words of Jesus; they could have used the Old Testament alone as their authority; or 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.


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 was in the process of dying out. This lost all contact with eyewitnesses of Jesus and His Apostles. Since the people could no longer hear from those whom 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 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. Since Jesus told 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 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. This was another factor for the need of an authoritative list.

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.

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


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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