NT Canon: Canonical Lists

This post is part of an ongoing series outlining the formation of the New Testament canon.
Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius of Alexandria

We now turn to an examination of canonical lists, an important step on the road to formal canonization. The importance of the core scriptures increased throughout the second and third centuries and were in due course joined in prestige and use by the rest of the books of the New Testament by the third century.[1] Outside of these works were the “fringe” writings, including those of the Apostolic Fathers. Around this time the process of formal canonization began with the creation of lists of books that were permissible for Christians to use.[2] The exact timing of formal canonization varies amongst scholar[3]; Barton and others postulate that a ‘Pauline canon’ was likely in circulation among churches by the end of the first century.[4] Our earliest lists of canonical books that are clearly datable are from Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (ca. 303-325 CE), which includes the threefold division of canonical, non-canonical, and fringe books; Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures (ca. 350); and Athanasius in his Festal Letter Thirty-Nine (ca. 367), which also includes the threefold division of books and includes in the canonical division the New Testament books exactly as we have them today.[5]Towards the middle to end of the fourth century numerous canonical lists began appearing within the Church, placing an increased importance on earlier lists such as those mentioned above.

Perhaps the earliest list of books considered canonical is Muratorian Fragment, discovered by Lodovico Muratori.[6] The original dating of the contents of the canonical list on this fragment is debated among scholars; Metzger and McDonald suggest a mid-to late-second century composition date, Sundburg and Hoffman argue for a much later date.[7] The Muratorian Fragment is of questionable worth when it comes to determining the views of the early church on scripture with any degree of certainty;[8] however the books that do appear on this likely late-second century list are informative. Unquestionably included on the Muratorian Fragment are the Four Gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul , the book of Wisdom, two epistles of John, the epistle of Jude, and the Apocalypses of Peter and John (Revelation being the later).[9] It is questionable whether or not the third epistle of John is included in the list as well, and Zahn believes that First Peter was likely left off due to scribal error.[10] Books of note that are not included in the list are First and Second Peter, James, and Hebrews, and scholars differ in their arguments for explaining the absence of these books.[11] The general consensus in modern scholarship, however, is that the Muratorian Fragment testifies to a generally accepted canonical list of books to be included in the scriptures of the Christian church and that this list appears to be very similar to the modern New Testament, with few notable differences. Thus, the case can be made that the general New Testament canon to have been formed within about one hundred years of the writing of Revelation.


[1] There were of course local or regional exceptions to this rule, such as the Syrian church’s rejection of the Apocalypse and several churches’ rejection of some of the Catholic Epistles and Hebrews. [2] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: It’s Origin, Development, and Significance, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992, 113-165. [3] Peter Balla, Evidence for an Early Christian Canon (Second and Third Century). Edited Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, The Canon Debate, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2002, 372-385. [4] Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origins, Transmission, and Authority, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2007, 365. [5] Ibid., 366. [6] Ibid., 369. [7] Metzger, 191-194; McDonald, 369. [8] Note Metzger’s discussion on the potential corruption and varying interpretations of the Muratorian Fragment (The Canon of the New Testament, 191-201). [9] Metzger, 195-200. [10] Ibid., 198-200. [11] Ibid., 200.

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