Most Christians, and I would dare say most Americans, know some basic things about the Christian New Testament. But many people don’t know (or don’t want to know) how the New Testament came into being. Some people seem to think that Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation fell from the sky in a nicely leather bound English translation (whichever your church happens to use, of course). Hopefully, most of you know that wasn’t quite how it happened.
So how did the New Testament canon form?
Before digging into five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon, we need to clarify what the New Testament canon is. The word canon itself comes from the Greek kanonikos, the basic meaning of which is “of one rule.” So a canon is something that other things are ruled by, the standard if you will. Within the field of Early Christianity, however, there are two more nuanced meanings behind the term canon, especially as it applies to the New Testament. In the first sense, a canon can mean a “list of authoritative books.” In this context, the canon of the NT is a list of books that should be considered authoritative for Christians. In the second sense, however, canon refers to an “authoritative list of books.” In this context, a list is authoritative and “closed”– only the books on this list are considered authoritative. Much of the history of scholarship concerning the development of the NT canon has actually revolved around misunderstanding this two definitions of the term canon. For the sake of clarity, I use the term “closed canon” when discussing an “authoritative list of books” (even though in the strictest terms, the NT canon may not even be entirely “closed” for Christians today– but that will have to be a different post).
Now that we’ve covered some important terminology, let’s talk about the five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon.
1. New Testament Writings Are the Earliest Specifically Christian Writings
The earliest Christians often had at their disposal the writings of Judaism (now contained in the Christian Old Testament). But the earliest specifically Christian writings (that is, those that were written by followers of Jesus) are the writings now contained in the New Testament. Even though we don’t know the specific dates that these writings were composed, scholars generally agree on a range of possible times that they were written. These dates are based on a number of factors, internal and external to the writings themselves. For example, based on Acts 1.1-2, we know that the Gospel According to Luke was written before the books of Acts. Similarly, some scholars have argued that because there is no mention of Paul’s death in Acts, it was written before the Apostle’s death (I hasten to note that this perspective is not universally held). Thus, we have a range of possible dates for the writing of Acts. We should note that there is a minor caveat to the fact that the New Testament Writings are the earliest specifically Christian writings, insofar as they are the earliest writings that we have access to. There are early Christian writings that we know were written but are lost to us. For example, there is good reason to suspect that the Apostle Paul actually wrote four letters to the Church at Corinth, including I Corinthians and II Corinthians, which was actually likely the third letter. As a final (potential) caveat, it’s worth knowing that some scholars date the writing of certain New Testament books (such as the Apocalypse of John or II Peter) into the second century. By no means do all scholars do this, and there is reasonable evidence that supports the writing of all the books in the New Testament by the end of the first century.
2. Some Early Christians Writing Were Not Included in the NT Canon
While the writings that we have in the NT were the first specifically Christian writings, they were by no means the last in the first centuries of the Church. We have letters from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna, as well as writings called the Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and Shepherd of Hermas that were written at the end of the first century and beginning of the second. These writings are collectively called the “Apostolic Fathers,” since many of these writers seem to have known and been followers of the Apostles (Polycarp for example seems to have learned from the Apostle John). After these writings came many (many) more writings from Christians. During the third, fourth, and fifth centuries some of these writings were included in early collections of scripture, though they were ultimately not included in the NT canon. Perhaps the most famous of these early collections is the Codex Sinaiticus, which includes in an appendix the Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas.
3. The Four Gospels and Paul (and Acts) Are Essential
Our earliest manuscript evidence demonstrates that, from almost the beginning of Christianity, the four Gospels and major letters of Paul have circulated in groups. Chief among these are the P45 (Chester Beatty collection) and P75 (Bodmer collection) for the Gospels and Acts, and P46 (Chester Beatty collection). Additionally, these writings were the most extensively and widely cited by the early Church, indicating their widespread use and acceptance as authoritative. While we find references to all canonical writings, as well as numerous non-canonical writings, in the works outside of the first century not all books were cited the same way. In Holy Writing, Sacred Text, John Barton outlines three categories of writings. The first category consists of those writings which were circulated widely and referenced very early on, these being Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, I-II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. The second category contains writings that were referenced relatively infrequently or were referenced locally for a period of time, before becoming more widespread in their use. This category contained the Acts of the Apostles, I-II Thessalonians, Philemon, the Pastorals (I-II Timothy and Titus), and the Catholic Epistles (James, I-II Peter, I-III John, and Jude). Additionally, Hebrews (almost universally attributed to Paul early on) and the Apocalypse of St. John were within this category, though the acceptance of these writings was debated between East and West for some time. The third category of writings were fringe texts, those sometimes cited or used in some places, but failing to gain the widespread circulation and overall authority needed to become canonical. Books in this category include the aforementioned Apostolic Fathers, pseudonymous writings (such as Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans or the Gospel of Thomas), or the writings of Gnostic Christianity. For more information on all things manuscript-y, visit Larry Hurtado’s blog. The key thing to remember: since the earliest days of written Christianity, the Four Gospels and Major Pauline texts have been used by Christians.
4. The Canon Was Not Closed by a Council
This is a belief that is both widespread and incorrect. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is at least partially to blame I think, but the notion has been around far longer than Brown’s book. The Council of Nicaea (325 CE) did not make any ruling on the canon of the New Testament, nor did any other ecumenical council. It is certainly true that local councils and synods (Carthage, Laodicea) occasionally made rulings on the contents of the canon, but these by no means set the precedent for the whole of Christendom. The contents of the NT canon were not determined by the vote of a council, but instead by the broad consensus of practicing Christians. As Bart Ehrman writes in Lost Christianities, “The canon of the New Testament was ratified by widespread consensus rather than by official proclamation.” (231) As noted above, the 27 books of the NT formed as the result of a gradual process and widespread use. While there were lists of many of the NT books by the end of the second century, the contents of the NT as we have them now were not first written down until 367 CE by the Alexandrian Bishop Athanasius in his Festal Letter 39. For more on the gradual development of the canon, see here.
5. The Rule of Faith Stands Behind the New Testament Canon
The final thing that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament Canon is that while factors such as the early composition of the writings and the author’s connection to Jesus and the Apostles were important considerations in the use of writings, the ultimate reason behind a writing’s inclusion in the NT canon was its role in the “rule of faith” of Christianity. If a writing did not preach the Gospel, address the concerns of a local church, conform to lived practices of Christians, and strengthen their faith, it wasn’t used and therefore had no chance at becoming part of the canon. Christians have long been called “people of the book,” and that is in one sense true. But before that could be true, the NT canon was formed out of the consensus of the people. In that way, the New Testament really is a book of Christian people. And that’s something that you need to know.