Jack L. Arnold
THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
The word “canon”
means a rule or list and speaks of the right of a particular book
to a place in the Bible.
The New Testament
canon contains 27 books, being divided into the Gospels (Matthew, Mark,
Luke and John), History (Acts), the Pauline Epistles (may
include Hebrews), the General Epistles (James to Jude) and Prophecy
By the end of the
first century, all the 27 books were in existence. James is the earliest book, having been written before 49
AD, and the Apocalypse (Revelation) is certainly the latest, dating from about
II. VIEWS ON DETERMINING
Catholics: The Roman Catholic believes that authority rests in the
Roman Catholic Church and the church is infallible. The Church is the custodian of the Scriptures in that it collects
them into a canon, informs the believers and the world
that they are the word of God, interprets them, and supervises their
translation. Thus a book is
canonical because the church declares it so.
Protestants: The fundamental position is that the 27
books were part of the canon the moment they were written because they were
inspired by God and fully authoritative.
The books possessed canonicity by virtue of their inspiration, not by
virtue of being “voted” into canonicity by any group. The church simply recognized the inherent authority I
these writings. The church did not
add any authority to it.
III. ORAL TRADITION
For 20 years
after the ascension of Christ, not one New Testament book was written. During this time, the Apostles were still
living and the message of Christ was passed on by oral tradition (word of
But even during
this time there was a need to put oral tradition into writing; letters were
written, the Apostles were dying, there was a need to put the teachings of Christ
in permanent form, etc. There was
the testimonia, which were general
Christian teachings with proof texts from the Old Testament, and the loggia, which are collections of
Christ’s teachings. NOTE: The writers of the Gospels undoubtedly
had many of these sources at their disposal when writing their gospels.
IV. NEED FOR A CANON
The Apostles were
dying and there was a need for a written record so Christians could be
instructed. NOTE: Remember that by 100 AD all the New
Testament books were in existence and circulating among the churches.
The content and
character of the writings themselves was sufficient reason to gather them
together into a canon.
The Old Testament
canon provided a model for the New Testament and a permanent record of Christ
and His Church should be preserved for future generations.
The letters and
teachings of the Apostles were used in the public worship services of the
Christians and it would be logical to put them into a canon.
heresy in the early church was met by quotes from Christ and the Apostles.
Therefore it would be necessary to determine which books were
inspired by God.
the state, especially Diocletian (303 AD) made it necessary for Christians to
determine which books were really canonical. If a person was going to be martyred for possessing
scripture, he wanted to make sure he was going to die for inspired scripture.
After the first
century, books rather than scrolls were used in writing and this made it easier
to collect a canon.
V. REASONS FOR THE SLOW
RECOGNITION OF THE CANON
Communications: In those days there were not any
telephones, newspapers, magazines, etc., and there was limitation of
travel. It took months and years
for many of the books to be read by Christians in the early church.
Oral Tradition: The
early church preferred oral tradition at first until they saw a great need for
Old Testament: The
early Christians were attracted to the Old Testament because this was their
Bible. There was a tendency to
stick with the Old Testament and not form a New Testament canon.
VI. DEVELOPMENT AND
RECOGNITION OF THE CANON
Non-canonical Books: After the first century there were many
apocryphal gospels, letters and prophecies written that were not
canonical: 1 and 2 Clement,
Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of
Hebrews, Apocalypse of Peter, etc.
NOTE: Some in the early church did think some of these books to be
canonical, but they lost out because they did not meet the internal and
external tests of canonicity.
Canonicity: There were four things which aided in the determination of
which books should be accepted as canonical:
was the ultimate test; that is, could it meet the inherent test of inspiration?
Apostolicity: Was the book written by an Apostle or
by one who was closely associated with an Apostle (the gospels of Luke and Mark were accepted as
canonical because of their close relationship to the Apostles)?
the contents of the book doctrinally accurate and of a spiritual character?
Universality: did the
church universally receive the book?
All books of the
canon were in existence by the end of the first century.
The writers of
the inspired books claimed authority for their writings and recognized the
writings of others (cf. 1 Thess. 5:26; Col. 4:16; 2 Pet. 3:15-16; 1 Tim.
5:18). NOTE: Jude 17-18 says that 2 Peter 3:3 is a
word from the Apostles.
Letters were to
be read to others besides the initial recipients (Col. 4:16; Rev. 1:3 and
possibly Eph. 1:1, if the phrase “in Ephesus” is to be omitted).
Copies would be
made of these letters and passed out among the Christians. Paul’s epistles were the first to be
collected and then slowly the other canonical books were recognized. NOTE: All copying of the original manuscripts was done with great
care because they felt they were dealing with inspired scripture.
From 70 to 120
AD: The Apostolic Fathers quoted
freely from all books of the New Testament except Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John,
1 and 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Titus and Philemon.
From 120 to 170
AD: The Church Fathers of this
period were apologists who were defending the Faith to the pagan world. Thus there was much controversy
centered on the person and work of Christ and the apologists needed the true
gospels. These men quoted or
recognized all the New Testament books except Jude and 2 and 3 John. NOTE: During this time Marcion, the heretic, in 140 AD, drew up
his own canon. He accepted Luke and
ten Pauline epistles. This
undoubtedly forced an examination of the canonical books by the Church. POINT: By the end of 170 AD the New Testament was practically
complete and recognized as canonical by the Church.
From 170 to 220
AD: The Church Fathers of this
period are called polemicists because they were protecting the Church from
heresy. The whole canon was in
existence by this time but the extent of the canon was questioned. The Gospels, Acts, Epistles of Paul and
most of the Catholic Epistles were accepted. There was doubt about James, Jude, 2 and 3 John, Hebrews and
Revelation. The reason for this
doubt was because these books were not universally known or it could not be
proven that an Apostle wrote them.
NOTE: During this time the
Muratorian Fragment (170 AD) is dated, which lists the Gospels, Acts, eleven of
Paul’s epistles, Jude, 1 and 2 John, 1 Peter and Revelation as part of the
From 220 to 397
AD: By this time the churches in
the west accepted fully all the books except Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3
John. However these were later
recognized and at the Council of Carthage (397 AD) the 27 books we now possess
were pronounced canonical. The eastern
section of the church accepted all books as canonical except Revelation, but
this too was later accepted. The
Council of Hippo (419 AD) confirmed the decision of the Council of Carthage.
THE CANON IS
Reason: Jude 3 speaks of “the faith once and for all delivered to
the saints.” The Faith has been
preserved for future generations in the written Word, the Bible. Jude was written in 72 AD and the only
New Testament books not written then were the Gospel of John, epistles of John
and Revelation. Any books written
after Jude must harmonize with the existing canonical books. POINT: Many books did not harmonize and were put out of the canon.
1. Christ is the ultimate and final revelation of scripture (Heb. 1:1-3), and there need not be any more revelation. The gospels simply tell about the history of Christ, the epistles interpret the life of Christ, and the Revelation tells us about the future coming of Christ. This is all recorded in the Bible.
office passed out of existence after the first century. With the passing of this office, there
were no more Apostles to write inspired scripture. Thus the canon is closed.
God wanted to
reveal Himself. Therefore, He
oversaw the writing, collecting and preserving of the Bible. There is an element of faith involved,
but it is not presumption or based on ignorance, for there is good historical
evidence for our fundamental beliefs in the canon. It is reasonable to accept the 27 books of the New Testament
canon. By faith we acknowledge (1)
that God eliminated the uninspired writings; (2) that God supernaturally
controlled the recognition of the inspired writings which otherwise would tend
to be eliminated; and (3) that God superintended in the council decisions for
the totality of the inspired writings.
Reason: Those who had the best opportunity for determining
canonicity (the early church) judged the 27 books to be canonical.
Reason: No serious effort has ever been made to reinstate the
uncanonical books or add new books to the New Testament canon.
Reason: The 27 books have a saving and edifying power when applied
by the Holy Spirit, which none of the early century apocryphal books inherently
ARE THERE ANY
LOST INSPIRED BOOKS?
If a book were
found that met all the tests of canonicity, would this be placed in the
canon? The answer is yes, but
apparently the canon is closed and God intended it to be that way.
Archeologists have found portions of writings that were circulating after the first century, such as Saying of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip. None of these met the internal qualifications of inspiration and most are filled with Gnostic sayings which was an early heresy.