NEW TESTAMENT CANON
(Investigator 127, 2009
"Canon" means measuring rod. When used of the New Testament (NT) the
Canon measures and limits what Christians believe.
The oldest known manuscripts that contained all the NT books of modern
Bibles are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus both written about 350
Because these are the oldest, critics presume the NT was "thrown
together" only slightly earlier — by bishops who attended the Nicene
Council in 325 CE. The bishops supposedly decided which books are
inspired, doubtful, or heretical by show of hands.
Critics accuse the Nicene bishops of ignorance, cite stories of
implausible miracles at the proceedings, and write of the New
Testament's "forged" origins. Bushby (2007), for example, claims there
was no NT "until the 4th century" and cites disagreements between
manuscripts to argue for "forgery", "fabrication", "misrepresentation".
Dr Potter (#126) lists 23 "gospels" that never made it into the Bible.
We also have books written after the Nicene Council, for which
believers claim "inspiration". These include The Koran, Book of Mormon,
writings of Ellen White (Seventh Day Adventist founder), and others.
There is also the Apocrypha — 14 extra Old Testament (OT) books in the
2nd century BC Septuagint version — but the present article deals with
How, then, was the NT Canon determined? Are there criteria by which we
can test whether modern Bibles have the correct books?
APOSTLES and EYEWITNESSES
The Twelve Apostles were selected from "eyewitnesses" of Jesus:
…men who have
accompanied us…beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he
[Jesus] was taken up from us… (Acts 2:21-22)
…we had been
eyewitnesses of his majesty. (II Peter 1:16)
We declare to you what
we have seen and heard… (I John 1:3)
With this emphasis on eyewitness testimony, a rational criterion for
establishing a "Canon" of accepted documents is whether written
by Apostles or their associates:
have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have
been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those
who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the world, I
too decided, after investigating everything very carefully from the
very first, to write an orderly account… (Luke 1:1-3)
That Luke knew some Apostles is clear from Acts where he uses the
pronoun "we", thereby including himself in the company of Paul. (Acts
16:10-17; 20:5 to 21:18; 27:1-28:16)
The main events about Jesus were widely known (Acts 10:37-41) and any
"gospels" would have had to agree with such general knowledge.
The NT identifies Paul as writer of 13 of the NT's 27 documents. No
writer is named for Hebrews, but Hebrews is generally attributed to
Paul. Matthew, an Apostle, wrote one Gospel, Mark wrote one, and Luke
wrote one in addition to writing Acts. The Apostle John wrote five
books, the Apostle Peter two, and James and Jude, both brothers of
Jesus, wrote one each.
Paul's letters were accepted as the "word of God" (I Thessalonians 2:4,
13) and as "the Scriptures" by 60 CE. (II Peter 3:15-16).
So that's our first criterion — written by apostles or their
CIRCULATION and ACCEPTANCE
And when this
letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the
Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.
The NT does not have a
letter named "Laodiceans". This letter, however, is not necessarily a
"lost gospel" but another of Paul's letters, probably Ephesians, which
was in Laodicea when he wrote Colossians.
The point to note here is that the writings that became "Scripture"
were circulated among Christian congregations and accepted as
authoritative by the earliest congregations.
When Jude wrote his letter the faith was finalized but false teachers
were seeking to subvert it:
I find it
necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was
once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen
in among you… (verses 3-4)
Jude 17 speaks of the Apostles in the past as if deceased: "But you,
beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord
The words "once for all entrusted" written when the Apostles were dead
imply that no more should be added to the written foundation of
Jude identifies "intruders", who subvert the faith, by their "sexual
immorality", speaking "harsh things" against Jesus, and "indulging
their own lusts". (7, 8, 15, 16) This agrees with earlier NT letters
that condemn immorality and urge Christians to be examples of good
conduct. (Ephesians 5)
Therefore, ruled out as "inspired Scripture" or as "Canonical" are
writings of immoral men. By NT standards Joseph Smith, who wrote the Book
of Mormon, was a fornicator and adulterer, and his Book of
Mormon, therefore, not "Scripture" or "inspired".
That this method of assessment is valid can be checked in the case of
the Book of Mormon by investigating the content of the book
itself — which we did in #107. We found many historical errors, and
could substantiate almost nothing of the content.
The OT was written by Israelites (of the ten tribes of Israel) and by
Jews (of the two tribes). In 722 BCE the nation of Israel was destroyed
and surviving Israelites were absorbed by the Jews. In NT times,
therefore, the term "Jews" often includes Israelites.
With this in mind we read: "The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of
God…" (Romans 3:2)
Jews wrote and preserved the OT. The NT too was written by Jews. The
exception is Luke, since Colossians 4:10-14 seems to exclude Luke from
those "of the circumcision". This could still, however, allow for one
Luke was not an eyewitness "from the beginning" (Luke 1:1-3) but was an
eyewitness from about 50 CE when he joined Paul. (Acts 16:10)
Other than the borderline instance of Luke the NT Canon is limited to
THEMES and CONSISTENCY
Another way to assess books promoted as equal to the NT is to check
whether they agree with the Bible and contribute to its themes. The
Koran, for example, denies the crucifixion of Jesus, and much else,
despite calling the Bible inspired! (#107)
When discussing "additional gospels" skeptics often also consider
alleged errors in the NT. The idea is that if the NT has errors then
the NT is not "inspired" and its safeguards to exclude non-Canonical
writings are therefore invalid and can be ignored. And with the
safeguards ignored the critic can accept later "gospels" as Christian
and has more material with which to attack the NT!
Potter (#126), for example, mentions the corpses who left their tombs
and walked into Jerusalem. (Matthew 27) The "miracle" is unbelievable
to skeptics and unhistorical, and Matthew therefore unreliable. The
verse, however, is a mistranslation. (See #105) What happened is
that an earthquake threw corpses out of tombs and people who observed
this event walked into Jerusalem, not the corpses!
Potter also claims the NT predicted the world's end within one
generation: "…there are some standing here who will not taste death
until they see the kingdom of God has come with power." (Mark 9:1)
The "kingdom of God" came "with power" at the resurrection of Jesus
(Romans 1:4) followed by Pentecost and the growth of Christianity.
(Acts 1:8) An alternative interpretation is that Jesus was referring to
"the transfiguration" seen by Peter, James and John six days later.
The NT predicts the Gospel must reach "all nations" and the "ends of
the earth" — clearly a long time, not one generation! Peter implies
several thousand years. (II Peter 3:8)
The NT has many true predictions fulfilled after the 1st century such
Jesus to be preached worldwide. (Matthew 28:19)
nameless woman to be proclaimed worldwide. (Mark 14:9)
Jesus' mother to be blessed by all generations. (Luke 1:48)
Paul would "witness to all the world". (Acts 22:15)
Christians would outnumber the Jews. (Galatians 4:27)
Quotes from the NT appear in writings of Church Fathers from the 2nd
century onwards and are quoted as final authority. Therefore criteria,
like the five above must have been in operation.
Ignatius (35-107), Bishop of Antioch, authored seven letters which
quote Matthew, John, Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians,
Ephesians, Philippians, I & II Timothy and Titus, and allude to
Mark, Luke, Acts, Colossians, II Thessalonians, Philemon, Hebrews, and
I Peter — 19 of the NT's 27 books.
Clement, fourth Bishop of Rome, authored two letters to Corinth, c100
CE, and quoted Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Papias (c.60-130), Bishop of Hierapolis, referred to Mark, Peter and
John and also claimed John dictated the fourth Gospel.
Polycarp (69-166), Bishop of Smyrna, wrote a letter to Christians in
Philippi which has 40 allusions to the NT — from Acts, Romans, I &
II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, II Thessalonians, I
& II Timothy, Hebrews, I Peter and I John.
Tatian (born c.120), a Syrian Christian, authored Oratio ad Graecos
in which he defended Christianity. He also wrote the Harmony which
combined the four Gospels into one continuous narrative.
Marcion (died 160) rejected the Old Testament and was therefore a
heretic. However, his list of the NT Canon is the oldest extant list
and includes ten of Paul's letters, and Luke.
Irenaeus (130-200), Bishop of Lyons, authored Against All Heresies
and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching in which he
accepted the four Gospels, Paul's letters, Peter and Revelation.
Origen (185-254), a theologian of Alexandria, wrote that all Christians
acknowledged the four Gospels, Acts, Paul's 13 letters, I Peter, I
John, and Revelation. Accepted by some were Hebrews, II Peter, II &
III John, James and Jude.
Eusebius (260-340), Bishop of Caesarea and "Father of Church History",
mentions James, Jude, II Peter and III John as disputed by some but the
rest of the NT as accepted.
The "Muratorian fragment" which dates from the late 2nd century is the
oldest list of NT writings. Of the 27 books it omits only Hebrews,
James, I & II Peter.
The Chester Beatty papyri are 3rd manuscripts (kept in Dublin) of eight
OT books, the four Gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, Hebrews, and
In Alexandria in 367 CE, Athanasius listed all the NT books used today.
The Eastern Church officially accepted the same in 508 CE.
The Nicene Council and subsequent meetings did not invent the NT.
Rather they made official what was long accepted. We can corroborate
their decisions through the five criteria listed above and also by
considering what documents 2nd and 3rd century Christian writers quoted
to substantiate doctrine.
The paucity of extant, pre-Nicea, NT documents is because Emperor
Diocletian (245-313) instigated the "Great Persecution" (303 CE) during
which Scriptures were burned, churches destroyed, and clergy and laity
imprisoned or killed.
Nevertheless, pre-Nicene-Council manuscripts of most NT books still
exist, which proves they originated long before that Council met.
The Bodmer papyri (located in Geneva), for example, include an almost
complete manuscript of John from c.200 CE and 80% of a 3rd century copy
of Luke. Church Fathers like Irenaeus sometimes quoted large slabs from
the NT — proving that manuscripts now unavailable existed then.
Some critics note the absence of 1st century originals and claim some
NT books originated as 2nd century forgeries. If, however, the criteria
I presented above were followed such forgery was impossible. In the
case of John's Gospel the late-date-forgery claim is refuted by P52, a
John Rylands papyrus (in Manchester), dated 120-150 CE, which has
verses from John 18. Its discovery refuted scholarly argument that John
was forged around 200 CE.
The ancient Scripture-manuscripts, as skeptics note, collectively have
thousands of differences in the text. In recent centuries, however,
"textual critics" have compared all surviving NT manuscripts to
re-establish the original 1st century wording. (see #107)
Bruce, F.F. 1983 The Hard Sayings of Jesus, Hodder & Stoughton.
Bruce, F.F. 1960 The New Testament Documents, Inter-Varsity.
Bushby, T. 2007 The Forged Origins of the New Testament, Nexus,
June-July 2007, pp 55-61, 82.
International Sacred Text DVD-ROM (2006)
Livingstone, E.A. (Ed.) 1977 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the
Christian Church, Oxford University Press.
NRSV Reference Bible 1993, Zondervan.