Origins of the New Testament Canon in the West

Followers of Jesus Christ stand under the authority of new covenant Scripture, that is, the 27 collected books commonly called the New Testament.  Together with the Old Testament, this canon is to be the sole measure of absolute truth and authority for protestant Christians.  Separated from the Third Council of Carthage by over 1,600 years, some Christians today unknowingly seem to think that the biblical canon came straight from God in its final and complete form; however, Ronald Mayers expressed that those that hold to this view of the Bible “forget that it did come via man in history and did not fall from heaven en bloc.”[1]  Roger Olson, like Mayers stated, “Scripture was not dropped out of heaven as depicted on the cover of one book about the Bible that calls it That Manuscripts from Heaven.  Humans played a role in writing Scripture, selecting and closing the canon, and interpreting the Bible.”[2]  D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo on the other hand, argued, “It was not so much that the church selected the canon as the that the canon selected itself.”[3]  Understanding how the New Testament canon came to its present form is important if modern Christians are to rightly trust the authoritative books that make up the Bible most commonly published today.[4] 
Reviewing the development of the entire canon and understanding the duel nature of the human and divine authorship that gives the Bible the authority it holds over all other writings is an ambitious task, too much so for the scope of this post.  To focus on the development of the New Testament canon in the Western Church, some related topics will be avoided or given only light treatment, such as the development of the canon in the Eastern Church, the Apocrypha, and the pseudonymous and pseudepigraphal documents.  In addition, to avoid getting bogged down in another controversy, it should be assumed (even if only temporarily) that Carson and Moo were correct in arguing that the Old Testament canon was generally accepted and closed prior to the events that lead to the formation of the New Testament canon.[5]  In what follows, this  post will examine the meaning of ‘canon,’ briefly discuss the nature of divine authority and its relation to other documents, review canon criteria, and then survey the historical developments from the early known lists to the councils that eventually solidified the canon as it is accepted today.    

            When referring to ‘the canon,’ Wayne Grudem’s simple definition is usually enough for today’s church or Bible study setting.  Grudem defined canon as, “a list of all the books that belong in the Bible.”[6]  Following this definition, the New Testament canon then, is simply understood as all the books that belong in the New Testament of the Bible.  Grudem’s definition, although good for specific settings, does not capture the background, nuances, and significance of the word itself.  In tracking the history of the word canon in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English, Bruce Metzger explained that this word is “used in a kaleidoscopic variety of senses.”[7]  According to Metzger, in the earliest Hebrew use, it meant ‘a straight reed’ or ‘rod.’[8]  The Greek usages follow suit.  “[F]rom this comes numerous derivative uses of the term,” wrote Metzger, “in many of which the ides of straightness is manifest.”[9]  Other early uses of the word canon indicate that it meant ‘plumb line’ and ‘level.’  Both in Greek and Latin, ‘canon’ also took on metaphorical uses, such as ‘criterion’ and ‘standard.’[10]  As Metzger explained, “Aristotle described the good person as ‘a canon and measure’ of the truth.”[11]  And in later years, canon, the word, was used for ‘role model,’ ‘a collection of classical works,’ a standard of perfection in sculpture and music, and even as “the schedule or ordinance fixing the amount of grain or other tribute to be paid by a province.”[12]
            Of the uses of the word canon by Christians, its most common uses fall within the scope of ‘rule’ or ‘norm.’  The word itself is rarely used in the New Testament, and even then only by the Apostle Paul.  Most of his uses are typically translated into the word ‘rule’; however, in 2 Corinthians 10:13, Paul seems to use the word in regard to an area, maybe identified by boundaries.  As the New Testament canon started to form into a fixed set of authoritative books from which to be read publicly, Metzger demonstrated that the word took on meanings more in line with “a list, index, or table—terms that carry the suggestion of something fixed and established, by which one can orient oneself.”[13]  Neil Lightfoot provided a good explanation of how Christians use the word today, writing of the word canon, “. . . and when so applied to the Bible denotes the list of books which are received as Holy Scripture.  Thus if one speaks of the ‘canonical’ writings, one is speaking of those books which are regarded as having divine authority and which comprise our Bible.”[14] 

            If Lightfoot’s definition of ‘canon’ (mentioned above) is correct, an understanding of authority is necessary, specifically the authority referred to as ‘divine’ or ‘biblical’ authority.  “There is a difference between the canonicity of a book and the authority of that book,” wrote Lightfoot, “A book’s canonicity depends on its authority.”[15]  While Lightfoot’s statement, in part, addresses the criteria of inclusion into the canon (which will be discussed in the next section), it also implies a limited understanding of the authority of the documents.  What is this authority?  Are all books, on any subject, written by any person, in any time, equal; should the information they contain be given the same treatment, the same response?  The answer is another controversy that will be given only light treatment here.  In the simplest understanding, most Christians believe that God has reviled himself and his will to humanity.  People eventually recorded these events and experiences in written form.  Part of this belief also includes and idea that God guided and inspired these writings, himself becoming the duel and significant author of the text.  In one of these documents, Paul, writing to Timothy, stated, “All Scripture is breathed out by God . . .”[16] By exercising control over the documents that record his revelation and will to humanity, God gave these documents a greater position over others.  These God-breathed books, backed by God’s authority, are often identified as ‘scripture.’  Millard Erickson says about the authority of the scripture of the Bible, “By the authority of the Bible we mean that the Bible, as the expression of God’s will to us, possesses the right to supremely define what we are to believe and how we are to conduct ourselves.”[17]  The next question is how to identify which documents are authoritative scripture and which are not, which is the topic of the next section.  But before examining various canon criterion, it is important to recognize the difference between the scripture and the canon.  Geoffrey Hahneman said, “Whereas the concept of canon presupposes the existence of scriptures, the concept of scripture does not necessarily entail the notion of canon.  It is entirely possible to possess scriptures without having a canon, and this was in fact the situation in the first few centuries of the Church.”[18]

            The first followers of Christ had none of the New Testament scriptures because these books and letters had not yet been written.  As each book or letter was authored, it was typically copied and distributed, but the circulated was a slow process.  Thomas Lea and David Black explained, “When the New Testament books did begin to circulate, many other writings, such as additional gospels, acts of Christian leaders, additional epistles, and apocalypses appeared.  Some groups accepted these additional writings; others rejected them.  Some of the writings now in the New Testament required a long time to gain acceptance throughout the church.”[19] 
Reading publicly from the various gospels and epistles along with the Old Testament canon became a common practice in Christian gatherings.[20]  The challenge, however, was understanding which writings were Scripture backed by the authority of God and which writings were not.  As individual church leaders worked to determine from which books should be publicly read and treated as God’s Word, the canon was starting to take form, although not at all unified it its early beginnings.  Carson and Moo wrote, “The church’s role is not to establish what books constitute Scripture.  Rather, the scriptural books make their own way by widespread usage and authority, and the church’s role is to recognize that only certain books command the church’s allegiance and obedience, and not the others—and this has the effect of constituting a canon, a closed list of authoritative Scripture.”[21]  To recognize and identify the authoritative Scripture from the collection of writing making its way through the early churches, criteria generally acted as the judge.  If the work passed evaluation, it was included with the library of Scripture that governed and guided the people of the church.  A book excluded from this library was not necessarily a bad book; it was simply not duel-authored by both man and God. 
            Each person or local church evaluating books and letters had a specific but individual set of criteria, giving weight to specific matters as was best seen fit; however, there are some general similarities among most the criterion.  Following Harry Gamble’s categorization, the first criterion is Apostolicity.[22]  This criterion is a reference to the author being one of the Apostles or being connected to one in some way.  However, this individual criterion alone might not have been enough; as Lea and Black indicated, “Christians did not use the criteria for canonicity in a mechanical fashion.  Sometimes one criterion was more important than another.”[23]  To make it into the canon, a work often had to soundly meet more than one criterion or fit well within a wide breath of criteria.  The other common categories of measurement were Catholicity, Orthodoxy (also known as regula fidei, or the rule of faith), and the one criterion that was applied later called Established Usage.[24]  In addition to these guidelines for establishing canonicity, John 10:27 should also be considered.
            Apostolicity suggests that a work written by an Apostle should be included in the canon; and this statement works if considering the work of John, Mathew, or Paul.  Metzger’s research added strength to this argument when he wrote, “When the writer of the Muratorian Fragment declares against the admission of the Shepherd of Hermas into the canon, he does so on the ground that it is too recent, and that it cannot find a place ‘among the prophets, whose number is complete, or among the apostles.’”[25]  But what about other works not written by Apostles that did find a place in the canon?  In the case of Luke and Mark, for example, a connection to an Apostle is present.  However, although only speculation, it seems reasonable that there were other writers connected to Apostles whose work was not included.  Polycarp, for example trained under the Apostle John, but his work is not among the canon.  Gamble said The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Barnabas, and the Gospel of Peter all claimed apostolic authorship but remained rejected.  And, according to Gamble, James, Jude (which could easily make a connection to at least one of the Apostles), and even 2 Peter were only accepted with hesitation.  Apostolicity, while a strong criterion, is not enough on its own to have warranted inclusion into the canon.
            Catholicity is the idea that the “document had to be relevant to the church as a whole and even so intended by its author.”[26]  However, even after providing the previous definition, Gamble concedes that this factor would have caused concerns for the canonicity for some of Paul’s writings.  This criterion however, might have held much less weight compared to Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy is the idea that the writing was consistent with the existing doctrine or belief of the community of Christians.  To modern Christians who turn to the canonized Scripture in order to determine and evaluate doctrine and belief, this criterion might appear circular in nature.  However, it is important to remember that the early Church was much closer to the events in question and was thoroughly dedicated to carrying on the faith and teaching of Jesus and the first generation of Christians.  As letters and books were beginning to circulate, witnesses who could validate the written work and author were, in fact, still alive.[27]  Unlike Orthodoxy and Catholicity, Established Usage came into consideration in the later years of the canonization process.  This criterion examined not the document itself, but how the document was used in the employment of worship and teaching across the many local churches.[28]  Given that enough time had passed, one could ask if the document were obscure or new, or rejected or accepted by a large number of believers from many different church communities. 
            One additional consideration comes from the book of John.  In recording the teaching of Jesus, verse 27 of chapter 10 reads, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  In light of this passage, Grudem said,
It should not surprise us that the early church should have been able to recognize Hebrews and other writings, not written by apostles, as God’s very words . . . . It should not be thought impossible or unlikely, therefore, that the early church would be able to use a combination of factors, including apostolic endorsement, consistency with the rest of Scripture, and the perception of a writing as ‘God-breathed’ on the part of an overwhelming majority of believers, to decide that a writing was in fact God’s words (through a human author) and therefore worthy of inclusion in the canon.  Nor should it be thought unlikely that the church would be able to use this process over a period of time—as writings were circulated to various parts of the early church—and finally to come to a completely correct decision, without excluding any writings that were in fact ‘God-breathed’ and without including any that were not.[29]

It should be remembered that if indeed the works in question are authoritative and duel-authored by God, then the teaching within these writings is to be trusted and believed.  The New Testament canon includes teaching that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer and serves to help and direct the church that Jesus will, and is building.  As the standard of truth, the New Testament canon has the ability to speak of its own identity and authority, regardless how circular this may seem to non-believers.

            With an understanding of the general canon criteria, this post will now examine the result of applying general criteria to the various documents as the early church began to form what is now the commonly accepted canon of the New Testament.  Initially, the early canon was not straightforward.  People were forming lists of what should be included.  Many of these lists did not agree.  But over time, as more lists were developed and discussed, the canon of Scripture grew wider acceptance, eventually being confirmed by councils. 
It could be argued that the earliest Church Fathers were, unknowingly developing a canon of scripture simply by which books they quoted and treated as authoritative.  But ultimately, this reasoning does not provide a closed list of Scripture.  Another unintentional factor contributing to the canon was the codex.  Prior to the codex, books were written on scrolls with a maximum length of about 35 feet.[30] The longest scrolls could only contain Luke and Acts at best.  But the invention of the codex—a bound stack of pages—many more books could be assembled together.[31]  Where before the canon of scrolls would be cumbersome, the entire collection of documents considers Scripture could be bound in one book.  The bound leaf-books would start to reasonably indicate which documents belonged together and which should be excluded.  Carson and Moo argued that there is “early and widespread attestation of our twenty-seven New Testament documents being bound together in various configurations.”[32]  But still, these were not canonical lists of the Scripture as the canon is thought of today.
            Credited with being the creator of the first official canon list, Murcion, a man who was formally excommunicated in A.D. 144, developed a list of what he believed was authoritative Scripture.  His list was contained in a book he titled Antithese, which is lost to history.  All that is known of Antithese has been taken from works that wrote against it.  Form what can be determined, Murcion’s list contained stripped down versions of Luke and ten epistles of Paul, nothing more.  He rejected the Old Testament and removed all references to the Jewish God from the books he did include in his canon.[33]  As Metzger wrote, “It was in opposition to Marcion’s criticism that the Church first became fully conscious of its inheritance of apostolic writings.”[34]  Throughout the Church, lists began surfacing, mostly to combat the heretical ideas of Murcion and others.  The canon was developing.
            Three early lists worth noting are the Muratorian Fragment, a comprehensive list written by the Church historian names Eusebius of Caesarea, and the Easter Letter by Athanasius.  The Muratorian Fragment is a second century, 85-line middle section of a document, written in Latin, and named after the man who discovered it sometime before 1740.  From this document, there is evidence that a fixed canon boundary was in place, but there were still books that had yet been fully accepted throughout all of the Church.[35]  And the Fragment not only contained a instruction for which books were Scripture and should be read publicly, it hinted at some of the debate surrounding the developing canon.  Hahneman stated, “[I]n the Fragment it is acknowledged that some do not want the Revelation of Peter read in the churches (ll. 71-3) and that the Shepherd ought to be read privately, put not publicly (ll. 73-80).”[36]   The accepted books listed in the Muratorian canon are Luke and John (with Mathew and Mark assumed by the language describing Luke as the 3rd Gospel and John as the 4th), Acts, 13 of Paul’s works, a letter to the Laodiceans, a letter to the Alexandrians which might be Hebrews but this is disputed, Jude, and two letters from John plus his book of Revelation.  Peter’s Apocalypse is included, but as indicated above, there is mention that this book should not be read publicly and might be considers not a part of the canon.[37] 
In like manner, Eusebius (A.D. 260-340) places books in the categories of ‘definite Scripture without dispute (which he called “homolegumena”), books that are not fully agreed upon, and books that are in no way authoritative documents.  In Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius listed the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles (of which he includes Hebrews), 1 Peter, 1John, and Revelation as soundly part of the canon.  In the disputed but recognized list, Eusebius mentions James, Jude, two more of Peter’s Epistles and two more Epistles from John.[38]  However, it was Athanasius’ Easter Letter for the Alexandrian church written in 367 that included only the same 27 books found in the New Testament today.[39] 
            Over time, the books of the present New Testament canon had gained widespread acceptance, while others were clearly rejected.  In 363, the Council of Laodicia, in an effort against heresy, recognized the entire present canon with the exception of the book of Revelation.[40]  By the Third Council of Carthage in 397, little dispute existed to challenge the council’s reorganization of 27 books of Scripture, the duel-authored word of God.[41]  From this point forward, the canon has been generally accepted as it exists today.  And while the scope of this post is the development of the canon in the Western Church, it should serve as an additional conformation that the Eastern Church came to recognize the same 27-book New Testament canon.[42]    

            From what has been demonstrated here, Christians should feel confident knowing the New Testament canon is indeed the word of God, encompassing only the books that God intended to be viewed as new covenant Scripture.  The canon was not a creation of man but a process of time, discussion, and the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about (through man) a collective recognition and identification of Scripture by the early church, for the sake of all who came after them.  Carson and Moo were right in stating “It was not so much that the church selected the canon as the that the canon selected itself,” but it should also be added that the books that became the canon are the books of God’s word, authoritative, which all Christians should humbly submit to as the ultimate source of truth.[43]  
This post merely scratches the surface of a rich history full of lists and arguments regarding which books should have been included in the canon and which should have be left out.  There were many documents falsely attributed to apostolic authorship that were quickly rejected.  Some books were almost immediately accepted as the word of God.  There was a small collection of letters and books that were slow to gain acceptance but eventually found inclusion in the canon.  The criterion was disputed, some given more weight than others.  Arguments arose on the nature of divine authorship and by extension, authority.  Debate ensued.  And amazingly, the Eastern Church Fathers drew the same conclusions.  It is the hope of this author that additional interest will drive further studies in any of these facets of the New Testament canon development.

Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder. Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford
     University Press, 1999.

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids,
     Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Christian Classic Ethereal Library, Book III, [accessed March 8, 2010].

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1998.

Gamble, Harry Y. The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning. Guides to biblical
     scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol I. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids,
     Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.

Hahneman, Geoffrey Mark. The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon.
     Oxford theological monographs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2003.

Mayers, Ronald B. “Both/and: the uncomfortable apologetic.” Journal of the Evangelical
     Theological Society 23, number 3 (September 1980): 231-241.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.
     New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity.
     Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

     [1] Ronald B. Mayers, “Both/and: the uncomfortable apologetic,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23 no 3 (September 1980), 232.
     [2] Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 90.
     [3] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 735.
     [4] Most commonly published” refers to the protestant Holy Bible made up of 66 books, 39 of the Old Testament and 27 of the New Testament.  This Bible does not include the Apocrypha as the Roman Catholic Church understands the canon. 
     [5] Carson & Moo, 727-732. 
     [6] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), 54.
     [7] Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance) New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 289. 
     [8] Metzger, 289.
     [9] Ibid.
     [10] Ibid.
     [11] Ibid. 
     [12] Ibid, 290. 
     [13] Ibid. 
     [14] Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2003), 152. 
     [15] Ibid, 153.
     [16] 2 Tim 3:16.  All biblical references, unless otherwise indicated, will be taken from the New English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. 
     [17] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1998), 267. 
     [18] Geofree Hahneman, The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon (Oxford theological monographs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 73. 
     [19] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 69-70.
     [20] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 62.
     [21] Carson, 741.
     [22] Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Guides to biblical scholarship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 67-71.
     [23] Lea, 72, 
     [24] Gamble, 68-70.
     [25] Metzger, 253. 
     [26] Gamble, 69. 
     [27] For example, see 1 Cor 15:3-8. 
     [28] Gamble, 70-71. 
     [29] Grudem, 63-64. 
     [30] Metzger, 109. 
     [31] Ibid. 
     [32] Carson, 734.
     [33] Metzger, 90-99. 
     [34] Ibid, 99. 
     [35] Hehneman, 89. 
     [36] Ibid. 
     [37] Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 31-32
     [38] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Christian Classic Ethereal Library, III-xxv, [accessed March 8, 2010]. 
     [39] Carson, 734-735.
     [40] Ibid, 735. 
     [41] Ibid.
     [42] Ibid. 
     [43] Carson, 735.

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