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Don Stewart :: What Criteria Were Used to Recognize Which Books Belonged in the New Testament Canon?

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Don Stewart

God divinely inspired the books that were admitted to the New Testament canon of Scripture. There were, however, many other writings that claimed some type of authority. How did the people discern between that which was inspired of God and that which was not?

There Are Two Distinct Questions Concerning The Recognition Of The New Testament Canon

With respect to the acceptance of certain books as New Testament Scripture there are actually two distinct questions.

First, what caused the first generation of Christians to initially accept, copy, read, study, and circulate these works? What was it that caused them to accept these writings as authoritative?

The second question deals with those who lived after the time of the Apostles. What factors led them to accept certain writings as having the authority of God behind them? How did they determine which works were authoritative and which were not?

1. Apostolic Authorship Would Have Guaranteed Authority

One criterion would have been, "Was the author an apostle or did he have the endorsement of an apostle?" The issue of authorship was important because of the special promises that Jesus made to His specially chosen Apostles. They were given divine authority. If a particular writing came from an apostle, then its authority was guaranteed. This means that most of the New Testament books would have been immediately accepted.

Jesus Himself Appointed The Apostles

The apostles were appointed by Jesus to carry on His teaching ministry. Jesus commanded.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

He promised them the help of the Holy Spirit.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you (John 14:26).

Jesus also promised

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me, and you will testify also, because you have been with me from the beginning (John 15:26-27).

Jesus then said.

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you (John 16:13,14).

Jesus prayed

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (John 17:25-26).

The early believers knew that Jesus authorized these specially selected men. The spoken words of the apostles, as well as their written words, were considered to be the same as the words of Christ.

Most Of The Books Were Written By Apostles

Apostles wrote a number of New Testament books. They include: the gospels of Matthew and John; the thirteen letters of Paul; two letters of Peter: three letters of John, and the Book of Revelation. This makes 21 out of 27 books. The possibility exists that James, Jude and Hebrews could be added depending on their authorship, which could be apostolic. That would leave only the gospels of Mark and Luke and the Book of Acts without clear apostolic authorship.

The Apostles Numbered More Than The Twelve

There is some uncertainty as to how many people were in the apostolic circle. The New Testament does not restrict the title "Apostle" to only the twelve men who followed Jesus from the time of His baptism to the time of His ascension. There were more than twelve men who were with Jesus during this time. When a replacement was needed for Judas the disciples chose between those who had been with Jesus from the beginning. The Bible says.

Beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection (Acts 1:22).

There were others who were known as apostles.

James the brother of Jesus is called an apostle.

But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother (Galatians 1:19).

Paul, at least fifteen years after the ascension of Jesus, is called an Apostle.

We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you (1 Thessalonians 2:6).

The Apostles Spoke With The Authority Of Jesus

We find the apostles speaking with Jesus' authority. They said.

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements (Acts 15:28).

Paul wrote.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

He also said.

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).

To the Galatians Paul wrote.

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:8,9)

He then said.

But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man (Galatians 1:15,16).

The apostles were the foundation of the church.

Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).

Paul said about his words

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

John testified

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

Therefore we find the apostles asserting their authority.

Some Books May Not Have Been Authored By Apostles

It is not necessary that every writer of a New Testament book had to have been an Apostle. A writer of a New Testament book may belong to the larger apostolic circle. While the books authored by the apostles were immediately accepted as authoritative, there were a few works that were not written by apostles. Decisions had to be made concerning which ones would be accepted and which ones would be rejected. Paul warned his readers about false teaching.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-8).

He also warned about people preaching a different Jesus.

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Paul also warned about false apostles.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:13).

Consequently the people would have been on guard against false teaching.

The Non-Apostolic Writings Were Written Under Apostolic Guidance

If we include books written not by the apostles themselves but by people who wrote under their guidance and supervision, then all the New Testament books could be included in this category. For example, the gospel of Mark was written under the influence of Peter. Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Someone from that apostolic circle wrote the Book of Hebrews - though his present identity is unknown. James and Jude were also apostles in the wider sense of the term and, depending upon their identification, could actually have been two of the twelve Apostles. Therefore every New Testament book has some type of apostolic connection.

All Of The Books Were Produced In First Century

The fact that the apostles, or some people from their circle, were responsible for the books of the New Testament is an important factor in recognizing the extent of the authoritative books. All of the New Testament documents were written in the first century - possibly before A.D. 70. Books that were written after the apostolic era could not be considered candidates for the New Testament. It was only the immediate Apostles of Jesus had that authority to speak and write for Him. No one else was given this authority and this authority was not transferred.

2. There Would Have Been Guidance From The Apostles In Determining The Canon

There is also the likelihood that all of the present New Testament books received endorsement by the living apostles. Many of the apostles were still living when most, if not all of, these books were written and circulated. They would have been in a position to give guidance to believers concerning which writings were divinely authoritative and which were not. We have one example that it was being done. Peter recognized Paul's writings as Scripture.

Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15,16).

Therefore we can be confident that this guiding process was ongoing from the beginning.

3. The Books Were Copied, Recopied And Circulated

Another important point to remember is that the books that are in our present New Testament were copied, recopied, and widely circulated among the churches. There must have been some reason for this. Obviously the people believed these writings had some special worth.

4. There Was Immediate And Universal Acceptance Of The Writings

Universal acceptance was another key factor in recognizing what books God had divinely inspired. There were a number of books that were rejected by the church because it was recognized they did not have God's authority behind them. There was a surprising amount of agreement among the early believers as to the divine authority of our present New Testament books.

Only a few of our present New Testament books were even questioned. In addition, it was only a minority of people that had any doubts about them. For the most part the doubts were due to a lack of knowledge about the origin of these books. We find no example of a book that is presently in the New Testament that was originally doubted by a large number of believers and then later accepted.

The Believers Know Jesus' Voice

It is important to realize that most of our present New Testament was immediately accepted as Holy Scripture. This readily acceptance is in keeping with the promise of Jesus that His sheep know His voice. He said.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me (John 10:27).

Jesus also said.

If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own (John 7:17).

Believers Can Discern Between The True And The False

The Apostle Paul wrote about believer's discernment.

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:14-16).

To the church of Corinth he wrote.

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Corinthians 2:12-15).

Therefore the believers would have been able to recognize divinely authoritative Scripture when they read it.

The Process Of Canonization Is Similar To The Understanding Of Doctrines

The canon of New Testament Scripture was recognized in a similar way as some biblical doctrines. The formation of the teachings about the person and work of Jesus Christ occurred in the early centuries of the church. The doctrine of the Trinity took a couple of centuries to clarify. The doctrine of justification by faith was clarified at the time of the Protestant Reformation.

The fact that these doctrines were clarified at a certain point in history does not mean they came into existence at that time. In the same manner, the New Testament canon did not come into existence when it was generally recognized by the church - rather it came into existence with the completion of the last book that God divinely inspired.

Divine Inspiration Is The Key To Whether A Not A Book Should Be In The Canon

The basic principle for a book to be considered part of the New Testament canon is divine inspiration. A book can only be part of the canon if it is God-breathed Scripture. This is the only criterion.


The criteria that were used to determine which books were to be placed in the New Testament would have included apostolic authorship. If an apostle wrote a book to be read in the churches, then it would have had immediate acceptance as Scripture. For those writings which were not authored by an Apostle there would have been the guidance by the living apostles to help the church determine what was, and what was not, written with God's divine authority. The fact that the books that are in our present New Testament were copied and recopied shows the value in which they were perceived as having.

In addition, God's people would have been able to determine what was divinely inspired and what was not. The testimony of God's Spirit would have been a factor. God's people know His voice. The fact that the present New Testament was, for the most part, readily accepted, shows that this is the case.


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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