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

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Don Stewart

In the year A.D. 367, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt sent out a letter in which he specified the twenty-seven books that make up the present New Testament as the only sacred books that were to be combined with the Old Testament as sacred Scripture.

As far as we know, this is the first formal recognition of these specific books as the divinely inspired New Testament Scripture. What was the process that led the church to come to this understanding? How did we get from the time the Apostles wrote the New Testament to the recognition by Athanasius?

We Can Divide It Into Five General Periods

For convenience sake, we can place the development of the New Testament canon in five 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 (A.D. 150-200); the period of examination (A.D. 300-400); and the time of formal recognition (A.D. 400-497).

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

The first period was the time when the Apostles of Christ, as well as other eyewitness to Jesus' ministry, were still living. This would be approximately from A.D. 30-100.

The New Testament Had Its Origin In Christ

The New Testament had its origin in the Person of Jesus Christ. His twelve disciples, and those whom He specially chose, faithfully passed on the things that Jesus said and did.

They Taught The Apostles Doctrine

The early church taught the doctrine of the Apostles. The doctrine of the Apostles had the authority of the Lord behind them.

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

The Apostle Paul commanded to Timothy.

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you - guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us (2 Timothy 1:13,14).

Paul said that authoritative tradition was passed on.

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).

At the beginning this tradition was passed on by word of mouth. Eventually the traditions about Jesus were committed to writing. The New Testament was written during a period of approximately fifty years (A.D. 50-96).

The Writings Were Collected Early

The New Testament writings were collected at an 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. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15,16).

Before the end of the first century the letters of Paul circulated as a group.

An Early Manuscript Of Paul Has Been Discovered

There is also an early existing manuscript with 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. If this dating be correct, it would give further evidence of the early authority that Paul's writings had in the church.

Clement Of Rome

Clement of Rome (A.D. 95) was a contemporary with the Apostles. He is the same Clement mentioned by Paul.

Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life (Philippians 4:3).

He refers to a number New Testament books in a letter that he wrote to the church at Corinth. They include Matthew, Luke, Ephesians, Romans, First Corinthians, First Timothy, Titus, Hebrews and First Peter.

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

In the early years of the church there were no written documents. 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.

The Writings Of Those Who Came After The Apostles Were Not Uniquely Authoritative

It is clear that the writings of those who came after the apostles were not uniquely authoritative. Only the apostles were chosen and commissioned by Jesus. Since those who came after the apostles were not eyewitnesses to the events in Jesus' life they can add nothing to God's revelation to humanity.

Ignatius Of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch recognized this. He wrote seven letters in A.D. 115 on his way to being thrown to the lions. He made the distinction between his writings and that of the apostles.

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).

In his writings Ignatius acknowledged a number of New Testament books.

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 Rome. The writer is acquainted with the four gospels, the letters of Paul, Hebrews, and 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 the books as authoritative Scripture.

A Collection Was In Existence By The Middle Of The Second Century

This shows that before the middle of the second century a collection of writings was known in Rome and was accepted as authoritative, which was virtually identical with our New Testament. This evidence alone gives us the New Testament in the middle of the first half rather than in the middle of the second half of the second century

No Formal Canon Was Made At This Time

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 (A.D. 150-200)

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.

The Idea Of New Testament Is Established

By A.D. 170, at the latest, the concept of New Testament Scripture was firmly established. The contents that were undisputed include: the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John.

The First Use Of The Term New Testament

Independent of each other, and at about the same time, Tertullian of Carthage and Clement of Alexandria made the first clear uses of the term "New Testament" to refer to the written documents that came from Jesus' apostles. This occurred approximately A.D. 200. Some have argued for an earlier use by an unknown writer in the year A.D. 190 but this reference has been disputed.

The Muratorian Canon The Muratorian Canon (A.D. 170) was a compilation of books recognized as canonical at that early date by the church. It included all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and one letter of John. The books correspond with the Old Latin translation of the New Testament. The Testimony Of Irenaeus (A.D. 185)

Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, was associated with Bishop Pothinius who had known the first generation of Christians. Irenaeus acknowledged twenty-one books of the New Testament.

The Diatesseron Of Tatian

Tatian was a disciple of Polycarp. He made a harmony of the four gospels called the Diatesseron. This means, "through the four." The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, served as a basis for his harmony.

The Syriac And Old Latin Translations

During this time period the New Testament was first translated from Greek into other languages. The first ones were the Syriac and the Old Latin. Twenty-six out of twenty-seven of the New Testament books are found in these two translations. Only Second Peter is missing.

The Heretic Marcion

The heretic Marcion created his own canon during this period. He accepted only the Gospel of Luke (minus the first two chapters) and ten of Paul's letters. He rejected the entire Old Testament and anything in the New Testament that he considered to be "too Jewish." In his list of Paul's letters, he called the letter to the Ephesians, "to the Laodiceans." His heretical canon gave further impetus to the need for an authoritative list.

Hippolytus (A.D. 170-235)

He recognized twenty-two books. There was still some question about Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr described the worship services during this time. He said that each Sunday a selection was read from the gospels as well as from the writings. This is similar to the Jewish practice of reading from the Law and the Prophets each Sabbath. In citing New Testament Scripture Justin used the phrase, "It is written."

Period 4. The Time Of Examination (A.D. 300-400)

During this time 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. There Is No Exact Record When The Books Were Collected

We have no record exists as to what church first acquired 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 place where all the books were gathered together in one place would only be speculation.

Period 5. The Time Of Formal Recognition (A.D. 300-397)

It was during this period that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament began to be recognized by the church.

Eusebius (A.D. 270-340)

Eusebius of Caesarea made a statement about the New Testament canon. He divided the writings into several categories - those works were universally agreed upon, those that were admitted by a majority, those that were spurious, and those that were heretical or absurd. The Council Of Laodicea

In A.D. 363, the Council of Laodicea stated that only the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were to be read in the churches.

The Statement Of Athanasius

Athanasius wrote in A.D. 367 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.


Jerome 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 also recognized only the present twenty-seven books of the New Testament as sacred Scripture.

The Council Of Hippo

The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as Holy Scripture.

The Council Of Carthage

Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) affirmed that only those canonical books were to be read in the churches.

There is no indication that the church leaders Athanasius, Jerome, or Augustine, or these councils at Hippo and Carthage acted in an arbitrary manner. They merely acknowledged the general consensus of belief.

The Situation Was Less Stable In The East

From the time of Athanasius the canon was basically stable in the West. 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 the concept of a completed Bible 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, and by the end of the fourth century all twenty-seven books in our present canon were recognized by all the churches of the West.

Important Factors That Caused The Books To Be Accepted

There seemed to be three important factors that caused a book to be accepted. It had to have been written by an Apostle or one from the apostolic circle, it had to teach orthodox doctrine, and it had to be continuously used by the church from the beginning. These were the three overriding factors.

An Apostle Or Associate Of An Apostle Had To Have Been Behind The Work

First, the writings had to have the authority of the Apostles behind them. This would guarantee that the teaching was consistent with that which God had previously revealed. If the document originated from those specially selected men whom Jesus Himself chose and commissioned, then their authority and truthfulness was guaranteed. It was impossible for any false teaching to be contained in the writings of these hand-picked disciples.

The Writings Would Have Been Used Continually

In addition, these writings would have had to be continually used by believers from the beginning. The New Testament lays down this principle. The writings were to be read out loud in the church and the writings were to be circulated. The twenty-seven documents of the New Testament met these criteria - they were written by Apostles, or men in the apostolic circle, they were orthodox in their teaching, and the church continually used them.

There was never any discussion about the divine authority of the majority of the New Testament writings. These documents were initially considered to be divinely authoritative witnesses of Jesus Christ.

The Acceptance Was Gradual But Continuous

While the writings were immediately recognized as authoritative the need for a collection occurred gradually. The books were written, copied, recopied, circulated, read, studied, and cited as authoritative alongside the books of the Old Testament. Eventually they were placed into a collection.

Reasons For The Slow Acceptance Of A Canon

There are a couple 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. First, in the early years of the church, the oral tradition was given precedence over the written tradition. The people were more interested in the words of the Apostles than their writings.

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.

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


We can generally place the early history of the New Testament canon into five basic periods.

First, there was the apostolic era when the New Testament writings were written. The documents were composed, 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 authority. All of those who had heard the apostles were now dead.

The writings were examined during this next period. The need became more and more apparent of some way to separate the authoritative books from other writings.

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

The overriding factors for acceptance were basically three things. The writing had to have come from an apostle or one from the apostolic circle. The work had to be orthodox in doctrine. The church had to have used the work continuously from the beginning.

The recognition of the canon is a fact of history, not a repeatable process. The early church was closer in time and had greater information than we have available today. Therefore their judgment is to be preferred over that of modern scholars.


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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