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               7.How was the New Testament Canon Decided?


Introduction of the New Testament Canon

For Christians today, their Bible has an Old and New Testament; both testaments are a collection of books revealed over time.  The Old Testament was revealed over a thousand year period, 1450 B.C. to 425 B.C.; the New Testament is separated from the New Testament by a 450-year period known as the Inter-testimonial period.  The New Testament, unlike the Old was revealed over a much shorter time, a sixty-year period, from A.D. 33 to 100.

            By the time of Jesus, the Old Testament canon was closed 450-years earlier.   The question many people have is how did the New Testament find itself placed alongside the books of the Old Testament?  In addition, how did the books in the New Testament get included in the canon? 

            First, the any Bible student needs to understand the Old Testament is the foundation of the New Testament.  Jesus the Messiah is the fulfillment of prophecies of the Old Testament canon. The Messiah’s death and the establishment of a New Covenant is a chief focus of the Old Covenant and its canon.  The Messiah would come, suffer and die for the sins of the world; through the Messiah’s death, God would establish a New Covenant.  The New Covenant would establish an eternal relationship between God and fallen humanity.

            The New Testament Canon confirms and testifies to the life of Jesus the Messiah, who established the New Covenant in accordance to the Old Testament canon. The New Testament has several divisions. First, the Gospels, they reveal the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus the Messiah. Second, history, known as the Book of Acts records the history of the early church after the ascension of Christ. Thirdly, the Epistles are letters of instruction, from Apostles to the churches and church leaders in the early church. Finally, the Apocalypse or Revelation describes the final events leading to the return of Jesus the Messiah.

            Therefore when discussing the New Testament canon, we need to understand its dependence on Old Testament canon.  For example, half the verses of the book of Revelation have a direct or indirect reference to verses in the Old Testament.  The Gospels and Epistles constantly refer to the Old Testament.





The Old Testament foundation


The death of Jesus the Messiah was event foretold hundreds of years before his birth. His death was payment for sins, as typified in the Old Testament sacrificial system.  His death established the New Covenant, the basis of the revealed “Scripture” in the New Testament.  The word “testament” originates from the Greek word for “covenant”.

The basis of the New Testament is the atoning death of Messiah, the  New-Covenant is established on his death, the Church is the inclusion of the Gentiles as part of God’s people, grafted into the covenant blessings of Israel (Romans11:20-22).


1. Messiah’s death 

Isaiah foretold the death of Messiah, who would die for the sins of the world 700-years before His birth. Daniel foretold the exact month, year and day of Messiah death (Daniel 9:24-27). 

13 Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. 11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. Isaiah 52:13,53:10-11

2. The New Covenant 

Jeremiah wrote 600 years before the birth of Jesus about the coming of greater covenant, greater then the Mosaic covenant, with this Covenant iniquity will be forgiven, and sins forgotten. This covenant will be relational, Israel will be called “my people”, and the laws will be in the hearts and minds of the Lord’s “people”.  Into this Covenant the Gentiles were included.  

31 "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, F23 says the Lord. 33 "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 "No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." Jeremiah 31:31-34

3. Gentiles receive the light of the Gospel[1]. 

Isaiah wrote of the coming of the righteous servant, who would bring justice to the Gentiles (nations). The servant’s death (Isaiah 53:11) will be a covenant and light to the Gentiles.  After the death of Jesus, He established his church to carry the gospel to the nations, offering his atoning death to the lost. (Matthew 28:19) 

1 "Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. 2 He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. 3 A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth. 4 He will not fail nor be discouraged, Till He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands shall wait for His law." 5 Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk on it: 6 "I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles,              Isaiah 42:1-6 

Upon this foundation, that Jesus Christ established His church and revealed His words through his Apostles, that they should be a light to the nations, offering salvation to the lost. On this basis is the New Testament Canon revealed. 

            Before the establishment of the New Testament Canon, the Old Testament was the Bible of the early church. Before Jesus was crucified, he promised the coming of the Holy Spirit who would help the Apostles remember the words spoken to them.  Here Jesus established the “Inspirational” aspect of the New Covenant. 

New Testament Inspiration

 The Holy Spirit inspires the New Testament like Old Testament; the Holy Spirit is the source of the words contained in the pages of the New Testament.  Jesus when he was with His disciples promised them they would be able to remember the words spoken, through the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit would be the source of their words. 

25 "These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. 26 "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.John 14:25-26


            Likewise, in the epistles and the rest of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is the source of the words, and not human wisdom.  Therefore, since God is the source of scripture, it follows then; He has the ability to preserve His word for coming generations.


10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. 13 These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. I Cor 2:10-13


Through his disciples, Jesus would reveal the Gospel to the nations, through the inspiration of the Holy Sprit; “Truth” would be transmitted to the “written document”.  These documents then would be compiled into the “New Testament canon”.  The apostles and prophets are the vehicle, which Jesus choose to transmit the Gospel to the nations.


having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 21in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Ephesians 2:20

Why a New Testament Canon?


As Christianity began to spread throughout the Gentile world, there developed several important reasons to establish, which written works were from apostolic sources and which were from heretical sources.


1. The Books were Prophetic

The books revealed through the Apostles were prophetic in nature, since Jesus promised through the Holy Spirit to communicate His words to His church. Therefore it was important to establish just what books had apostolic authority and which did not. 

(2 Peter 3:15-17, Col. 4:16, 2 Tim. 3:16).


2. The needs of the early church

As the church grew in Asia, Africa and Europe, it became important to establish, which books originated from apostolic authority . Since the churches used the writing of the apostles to establish doctrine and teach, it was mandatory to discriminate against books, which had dubious origins.


3. Growth of the heretical movements


Since Jesus Christ established His church on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, heretical groups attempted to use the names of apostles to establish their own particular doctrines, many contrary to the revealed scriptures of the Old Testament. One Gnostic group in particular Marcionites, founded by Marcion, rejected the Old Testament, declaring the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Jews, was a lower level deity. Maricon, expelled from the church in A.D. 144, attempted to establish a rival church.  In addition to rejecting the Old Testament, Marcion also rejected of all the epistles except for the Pauline epistles[2] and the Gospel of Luke. Polycarp saw Marcion as a real threat to the early church, upon meeting him; he called him, “The Firstborn of Satan”.

In addition to the Marcionites, other sects also developed, each with their own agenda and leader.  Among these were the Judaisers[3], the Gnostics, The Mandaens and the Manichaens. In order to establish their credibility, they published works that included apostles names.  Many of the writings of the early church fathers, such as Irenaeus (A.D. 120-200) and Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) fought with these heretical groups by exposing and refuting their doctrines.

            The false works, which originated with many of these groups (i.e. Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas), caused confusion for many as Christianity spread in Europe, Asia and Africa. Many of the new believers needed an authoritative list of books to distinguish between fallacious and authentic works.


4. Missionary movements


As Christianity spread into foreign lands, the need for translations of scripture was required, and since there was no “Bible” but individual New Testament books, there was a need to establish what books had apostolic authority and which did not.  In the first half of the 2nd century, the books of the Bible were translated into Syriac, Old Latin, in the 3rd century into Coptic both the Sahidic and Bohairic versions.


5. Persecutions of the church


Since the time of Nero, the Christian church faced periods of persecution, with this persecution Christians were forced to surrender their scriptures. Since many viewed the “Words” in their possession as the Word of God, many would willingly face death, rather then surrender their scriptures. 

In the Christian persecutions during the reign of Decius (A.D. 249-51) and Diocletian (A.D. 302-305) Christian scriptures were specifically targeted for destruction. Those who refused to relinquish them faced Roman execution.  Eusebius (A.D. 318) records the words of the Diocletian edict,


It was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, and the month Dystrus, or March, as the Romans would call it, in which as the festival of the Saviour’s Passion was coming on, an imperial letter was everywhere promulgated, ordering the razing of the churches to the ground and the destruction by fire of the scriptures, and proclaiming that those who held high positions would lose all civil rights, while those in households, if they persisted in their profession of Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty. Such was the first document against us. But not long afterwards we were further  visited with other letters, and in them the orders was given that the presidents of the churches should all, in every place, be first committed to prison, and then afterwards compelled by every kind of device to sacrifice.[4]


What qualifications were used to determine canon?


There needs to be a distinction between discovery and selection of canon.  The church did not choose the canon, but discovered the canon.  The basis of New Testament canon is Jesus Christ and the revelation of “inspired” scripture through the work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).   Jesus through His apostles established His church, and through them revealed scripture.  Therefore, the basis of canon is apostolic authority.  Therefore, the role in the church in canon was to distinguish between apostolic works built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, as opposed to non-authoritative and false works, which claimed to be inspired.

The Church was built on the foundation of the disciples, who received their authority from Jesus Christ.  The canon is the written words of apostolic authority; therefore, the church is the child of canon and not its mother.  These are important distinctions to understand when we examine canon; the claim the church chose certain gospel over others is false.  The church, through councils and the witness of early church fathers, recognized what books were authentic and which were false.

These principles to determine canon are based on the following principles.


1. Was the author an apostle or did it have apostolic authority?  

For example, John Mark wrote the gospel of Mark, under the authority of Peter.  Luke was written under the authority of Paul. 

2. Does the document agree with the canon of truth? 

Since the book is inspired, it will not contradict Old Testament or authenticated New Testament canon.  

3. Was the work accepted by the early church? 

Could the work be verified in early church history?  Was it commented on by the early church fathers, or was it cited as scripture?  These were important questions in determining the authentic nature of the books.

The Muratorian Canon 

The principles of canon recognition are demonstrated in a Latin manuscript found by Cardinal L.A. Muratori (1672-1750) in a Ambrosian library in Milan Italy.  The document was written in the seventh to eight century, but was copied from an earlier document dated to about A.D. 170, because it refers to the episcopate of Pius I of Rome (died 157). He mentions only two epistles of John, without describing them. The Apocalypse of Peter is mentioned as a book which "some of us will not allow to be read in church."

The manuscript is a fragment, therefore it starts with Luke being the third book of the Gospels, Matthew and Mark would have been the first and second.  This list could have been a response to Marcion’s canon list, since Marcion is specifically mentioned at the end of the document.


. . at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative]. (2) The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. (3) Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, (4-5) when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, (6) composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not (7) seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, (8) so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John. (9) The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. (10) To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], (11) he said, 'Fast with me from today to three days, and what (12) will be revealed to each one (13) let us tell it to one another.' In the same night it was revealed (14) to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, (15-16) that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it. And so, though various (17) elements  may be taught in the individual books of the Gospels, (18) nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by the one sovereign  Spirit all things (20) have been declared in all [the Gospels]: concerning the (21) nativity, concerning the passion, concerning the resurrection, (22) concerning life with his disciples, (23) and concerning his twofold coming; (24) the first in lowliness when he was despised, which has taken place, (25) the second glorious in royal power, (26) which is still in the future. What (27) marvel is it then, if John so consistently (28) mentions these particular points also in his Epistles, (29) saying about himself, 'What we have seen with our eyes (30) and heard with our ears and our hands (31) have handled, these things we have written to you? (32) For in this way he professes [himself] to be not only an eye-witness and hearer, (33) but also a writer of all the marvelous deeds of the Lord, in their order. (34) Moreover, the acts of all the apostles (35) were written in one book. For 'most excellent Theophilus'  Luke compiled (36) the individual events that took place in his presence — (37) as he plainly shows by omitting the martyrdom of Peter (38) as well as the departure of Paul from the city [of Rome] (39) when he journeyed to Spain. As for the Epistles of (40-1) Paul, they themselves make clear to those desiring to understand, which ones [they are], from what place, or for what reason they were sent. (42) First of all, to the Corinthians, prohibiting their heretical schisms; (43) next, to the Galatians, against circumcision; (44-6) then to the Romans he wrote at length, explaining the order (or, plan) of the Scriptures, and also that Christ is their principle (or, main theme). It is necessary (47) for us to discuss these one by one, since the blessed (48) apostle Paul himself, following the example of his predecessor (49-50) John, writes by name to only seven churches in the following sequence: To the Corinthians (51) first, to the Ephesians second, to the Philippians third, (52) to the Colossians fourth, to the Galatians fifth, (53) to the Thessalonians sixth, to the Romans (54-5) seventh. It is true that he writes once more to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians for the sake of admonition, (56-7) yet it is clearly recognizable that there is one Church spread throughout the whole extent of the earth. For John also in the (58) Apocalypse, though he writes to seven churches, (59-60) nevertheless speaks to all. [Paul also wrote] out of affection and love one to Philemon, one to Titus, and two to Timothy; and these are held sacred (62-3) in the esteem of the Church catholic for the regulation of ecclesiastical discipline. There is current also [an epistle] to (64) the Laodiceans, [and] another to the Alexandrians, [both] forged in Paul's (65) name to [further] the heresy of Marcion, and several others (66) which cannot be received into the catholic Church (67)— for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. (68) Moreover, the epistle of Jude and two of the above-mentioned (or, bearing the name of) John are counted (or, used) in the catholic [Church]; and [the book of] Wisdom, (70) written by the friends  of Solomon in his honour. (71) We receive only the apocalypses of John and Peter, (72) though some of us are not willing that the latter be read in church. (73) But Hermas wrote the Shepherd (74) very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, (75) while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the [episcopal] chair (76) of the church of the city of Rome. (77) And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but (78) it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among (79) the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among (80) the Apostles, for it is after [their] time. (81) But we accept nothing whatever of Arsinous or Valentinus or Miltiades, (82) who also composed (83) a new book of psalms for Marcion, (84-5) together with Basilides, the Asian founder of the Cataphrygians  . .[5]

 The Witness of the early church fathers


The Canon of the New Testament[6]

I. Two Preliminary Considerations

The canon is the collection of 27 books, which the church (generally) receives as its New Testament Scriptures. The history of the canon is the history of the process by which these books were brought together and their value as sacred Scriptures officially recognized. That process was gradual, furthered by definite needs, and, though unquestionably continuous, is in its earlier stages difficult to trace. It is always well in turning to the study of it to have in mind two considerations which bear upon the earliest phases of the whole movement. These are:

1. Early Christians Had the Old Testament

The early Christians had in their hands what was a Bible to them, namely, the Old Testament Scriptures.


II. Three Stages of the Process

For convenience of arrangement and definiteness of impression the whole process may be marked off in three stages:

1.     that from the time of the apostles until about 170 ad;

2.     that of the closing years of the 2nd century and the opening of the 3rd (170-220 ad);

3.     that of the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the first we seek for the evidences of the growth in appreciation of the peculiar value of the New Testament writings; in the second we discover the clear, full recognition of a large part of these writings as sacred and authoritative; in the third the acceptance of the complete canon in the East and in the West.

1. From the Apostles to 170 AD

(1) Clement of Rome; Ignarius; Polycarp

The first period extending to 170 ad.—It does not lie within the scope of this article to recount the origin of the several books of the


New Testament. This belongs properly to New Testament Introduction (which see). By the end of the 1st century all of the books of the New Testament were in existence. They were, as treasures of given churches, widely separated and honored as containing the word of Jesus or the teaching of the apostles. From the very first the authority of Jesus had full recognition in all the Christian world. The whole work of the apostles was in interpreting Him to the growing church. His sayings and His life were in part for the illumination of the Old Testament; wholly for the understanding of life and its issues. In every assembly of Christians from the earliest days He was taught as well as the Old Testament. In each church to which an epistle was written that epistle was likewise read. Paul asked that his letters be read in this way (1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16). In this attentive listening to the exposition of some event in the life of Jesus or to the reading of the epistle of an apostle began the “authorization” of the traditions concerning Jesus and the apostolic writings. The widening of the area of the church and the departure of the apostles from earth emphasized increasingly the value of that which the writers of the New Testament left behind them. Quite early the desire to have the benefit of all possible instruction led to the interchange of Christian writings.

Polycarp (110 ad ?) writes to the Philippians, “I have received letters from you and from Ignatius. You recommend me to send on yours to Syria; I shall do so either personally or by some other means. In return I send you the letter of Ignatius as well as others which I have in my hands and for which you made request. I add them to the present one; they will serve to edify your faith and perseverance” (Epistle to Phil, XIII). This is an illustration of what must have happened toward furthering a knowledge of the writings of the apostles. Just when and to what extent “collections” of our New Testament books began to be made it is impossible to say, but it is fair to infer that a collection of the Pauline epistles existed at the time Polycarp wrote to the Phil and when Ignatius wrote his seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, i.e. about 115 ad. There is good reason to think also that the four Gospels were brought together in some places as early as this. A clear distinction, however, is to be kept in mind between “collections” and such recognition as we imply in the word “canonical.” The gathering of books was one of the steps preliminary to this. Examination of the testimony to the New Testament in this early time indicates also that it is given with no intention of framing the canonicity of New Testament books. In numerous instances only “echoes” of the thought of the epistles appear; again quotations are incomplete; both showing that Scripture words are used as the natural expression of Christian thought. In the same way the Apostolic Fathers refer to the teachings and deeds of Jesus.

Clement of Rome, in 95 ad, wrote a letter in the name of the Christians of Rome to those in Corinth. In this letter he uses material found in Mt, Lk, giving it a free rendering (see chapters 46 and 13); he has been much influenced by the Epistle to the Hebrews (see chapters 9, 10, 17, 19, 36). He knows Romans, Corinthians, and there are found echoes of 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter and Ephesians.

The Epistles of Ignatius (115 ad) have correspondences with our gospels in several places (Eph 5; Rom 6; 7) and incorporate language from nearly all of the Pauline epistles. The Epistle to Polycarp makes large use of Phil, and besides this cites nine of the other Pauline epistles. Ignatius quotes from Matthew, apparently from memory; also from 1 Peter and 1 John. In regard to all these three writers—Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius—it is not enough to say that they bring us reminiscences or quotations from this or that book. Their thought is tinctured all through with New Testament truth. As we move a little farther down the years we come to “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (circa 120 ad in its present form; see DIDACHE); the Epistle of Barnabas (circa 130 ad) and the Shepherd of Hermas (circa 130 ad). These exhibit the same phenomena as appear in the writings of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp as far as references to the New Testament are concerned. Some books are quoted, and the thought of the three writings echoes again and again the teachings of the New Testament. They bear distinct witness to the value of “the gospel” and the doctrine of the apostles, so much so as to place these clearly above their own words. It is in the Epistle of Barnabas that we first come upon the phrase “it is written,” referring to a New Testament book (Matthew) (see Epis., iv.14). In this deepening sense of value was enfolded the feeling of authoritativeness, which slowly was to find expression. It is well to add that what we have so far discovered was true in widely separated parts of the Christian world as e.g. Rome and Asia Minor.



(A) Apologists, Justin Martyr

The literature of the period we are examining was not, however, wholly of the kind of which we have been speaking. Two forces were calling out other expressions of the singular value of the writings of the apostles, whether gospels or epistles. These were (a) the attention of the civil government in view of the rapid growth of the Christian church and (b) heresy. The first brought to the defense or commendation of Christianity the Apologists, among whom were Justin Martyr, Aristides, Melito of Sardis and Theophilus of Antioch. By far the most important of these was Justin Martyr, and his work may be taken as representative. He was born about 100 AD at Shechem, and died as a martyr at Rome in 165 AD. His two Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho are the sources for the study of his testimony. He speaks of the “Memoirs of the Apostles called Gospels” (Ap., i.66) which were read on Sunday interchangeably with the prophets (i.67). Here emerges that equivalence in value of these “Gospels” with the Old Testament Scriptures which may really mark the beginning of canonization. That these Gospels were our four Gospels as we now have them is yet a disputed question; but the evidence is weighty that they were. (See Purves, Testimony of Justin Martyr to Early Christianity, Lect V.) The fact that Tatian, his pupil, made a harmony of the Gospels, i.e. of our four Gospels, also bears upon our interpretation of Justin’s “Memoirs.” (See Hemphill, The Diatessaron of Tatian.) The only other New Testament book which Justin mentions is the Apocalypse; but he appears to have known the Acts, six epistles of Paul, Hebrew and 1 John, and echoes of still other epistles are perceptible. When he speaks of the apostles it is after this fashion: “By the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the Word of God” (Ap., i.39). It is debatable, however, whether this refers to more than the actual preaching of the apostles. The beginning of the formation of the canon is in the position and authority given to the Gospels.


(B) Gnostics, Marcion

While the Apologists were busy commending or defending Christianity, heresy in the form of Gnosticism was also compelling attention to the matter of the writings of the apostles. From the beginning Gnostic teachers claimed that Jesus had favored chosen ones of His apostles with a body of esoteric truth which had been handed down by secret tradition. This the church denied, and in the controversy that went on through years the question of what were authoritative writings became more and more pronounced. Basilides e.g., who taught in Alexandria during the reign of Hadrian (AD 117-38), had for his secret authority the secret tradition of the apostle Matthias and of Glaucias, an alleged interpreter of Peter, but he bears witness to Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians in the effort to recommend his doctrines, and, what is more, gives them the value of Scripture in order to support more securely his teachings. (See Philosophoumena of Hippolytus, VII, 17). Valentinus, tracing his authority through Theodas to Paul, makes the same general use of New Testament books, and Tertullian tells us that he appeared to use the whole New Testament as then known.

The most noted of the Gnostics was Marcion, a native of Pontus. He went to Rome (circa 140 AD), there broke with the church and became a dangerous heretic. In support of his peculiar views, he formed a canon of his own which consisted of Luke’s Gospel and ten of the Pauline epistles. He rejected the Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews, Matthew, Mark, John, the Acts, the Catholic epistles and the Apocalypse, and made a recension of both the gospel of Luke and the Pauline epistles which he accepted. His importance, for us, however, is in the fact that he gives us the first clear evidence of the canonization of the Pauline epistles. Such use of the Scriptures inevitably called forth both criticism and a clearer marking off of those books which were to be used in the churches opposed to heresy, and so “in the struggle with Gnosticism the canon was made.” We are Thus brought to the end of the first period in which we have marked the collection of New Testament books in greater or smaller compass, the increasing valuation of them as depositions of the truth of Jesus and His apostles, and finally the movement toward the claim of their authoritativeness as over against perverted teaching. No sharp line as to a given year can be drawn between the first stage of the process and the second. Forces working in the first go on into the second, but results are accomplished in the second which give it its right to separate consideration.


2. From 170 AD to 220 Ad


The period from 170 AD to 220 AD.—This is the age of a voluminous theological literature busy with the great issues of church canon and creed. It is the period of the great names of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, representing respectively Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa. In passing into it we come into the clear light of Christian history. There is no longer any question as to a New Testament canon; the only difference of judgment is as to its extent. What has been slowly but surely shaping itself in the consciousness of the church now comes to clear expression.



That expression we may study in Irenaeus as representative of the period. He was born in Asia Minor, lived and taught in Rome and became afterward bishop of Lyons. He had, therefore, a wide acquaintance with the churches, and was peculiarly competent to speak concerning the general judgment of the Christian world. As a pupil of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, he is connected with the apostles themselves. An earnest defender of the truth, he makes the New Testament in great part his authority, and often appeals to it. The four Gospels, the Acts, the epistles of Paul, several of the Catholic epistles and the Apocalypse are to him Scripture in the fullest sense. They are genuine and authoritative, as much so as the Old Testament ever was. He dwells upon the fact that there are four gospels, the very number being prefigured in the four winds and the four quarters of the earth. Every attempt to increase or diminish the number is heresy. Tertullian takes virtually the same position (Adv. Marc., iv. 2), while Clement of Alexandria quotes all four gospels as “Scripture.” By the end of the 2nd century the canon of the gospels was settled. The same is true also of the Pauline epistles. Irenaeus makes more than two hundred citations from Paul, and looks upon his epistles as Scripture (Adv. Haer., iii.12, 12). Indeed, at this time it may be said that the new canon was known under the designation “The Gospel and the Apostles” in contradistinction to the old as “the Law and the Prophets.” The title “New Testament” appears to have been first used by an unknown writer against Montanism (circa 193 AD). It occurs frequently after this in Origen and later writers. In considering all this testimony two facts should have emphasis: (1) its wide extent: Clement and Irenaeus represent parts of Christendom which are widely separated; (2) The relation of these men to those who have gone before them. Their lives together with those before them spanned nearly the whole time from the apostles. They but voiced the judgment which silently, gradually had been selecting the “Scripture” which they freely and fully acknowledged and to which they made appeal.



Just here we come upon the Muratorian Fragment, so called because discovered in 1740 by the librarian of Milan, Muratori. It dates from some time near the end of the 2nd century, is of vital interest in the study of the history of the canon, since it gives us a list of New Testament books and is concerned with the question of the canon itself. The document comes from Rome, and Lightfoot assigns it to Hippolytus. Its list contains the Gospels (the first line of the fragment is incomplete, beginning with Mark, but Matthew is clearly implied), the Acts, the Pauline epistles, the Apocalypse, 1 and 2 John (perhaps by implication the third) and Jude. It does not mention Hebrew, 1 and 2 Peter, James. In this list we have virtually the real position of the canon at the close of the 2nd century. Complete unanimity had not been attained in reference to all the books which are now between the covers of our New Testament. Seven books had not yet found a secure place beside the gospel and Paul in all parts of the church. The Palestinian and Syrian churches for a long time rejected the Apocalypse, while some of the Catholic epistles were in Egypt considered doubtful. The history of the final acceptance of these belongs to the third period.

3. 3rd and 4th Centuries


The period included by the 3rd and 4th centuries—It has been said that “the question of the canon did not make much progress in the course of the 3rd century” (Reuss, History of the Canon of Holy Scripture, 125). We have the testimony of a few notable teachers mostly from one center, Alexandria. Their consideration of the question of the disputed book serves just here one purpose. By far the most distinguished name of the 3rd century is Origen. He was born in Alexandria about 185 ad, and before he was seventeen became an instructor in the school for catechumens. In 203 he was appointed bishop, experienced various fortunes, and died in 254. His fame rests upon his ability as an exegete, though he worked laboriously and successfully in other fields. His testimony is of high value, not simply because of his own studies, but also because of his wide knowledge of what was thought in other Christian centers in the world of his time. Space permits us only to give in summary form his conclusions, especially in regard to the books still in doubt. The Gospels, the Pauline epistles, the Acts, he accepts without question. He discusses at some length the authorship of He, believes that “God alone knows who wrote it,” and accepts it as Scripture. His testimony to the Apocalypse is given in the sentence, “Therefore John the son of Zebedee says in the Revelation.” He also gives sure witness to Jude, but wavers in regard to James, 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John.

(2) Dionysius

Another noted name of this century is Dionysius of Alexandria, a pupil of Origen (died 265). His most interesting discussion is regarding the Apocalypse, which he attributes to an unknown John, but he does not dispute its inspiration. It is a singular fact that the western church accepted this book from the first, while its position in the East was variable. Conversely the Epistle to the He was more insecure in the West than in the East. In regard to the Catholic epistles Dionysius supports James, 2 John, and 3 John, but not 2 Peter or Jude.


(3) Cyprian

In the West the name of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (248-58 ad), was most influential. He was much engaged in controversy, but a man of great personal force. The Apocalypse he highly honored, but he was silent about the Epistle to the Hebrews. He refers to only two of the Catholic epistles, 1 Peter and 1 John.

These testimonies confirm what was said above, namely, that the end of the 3rd century leaves the question of the full canon about where it was at the beginning. 1 Peter and 1 John seem to have been everywhere known and accepted. In the West the five Catholic epistles gained recognition more slowly than in the East.

(4) Eusebius

In the early part of the 4th century Eusebius (270-340 ad), bishop of Caesarea before 315, sets before us in his Church History (III, chapters iii-xxv) his estimate of the canon in his time. He does not of course use the word canon, but he “conducts an historical inquiry into the belief and practice of earlier generations.” He lived through the last great persecution in the early part of the 4th century, when not only places of worship were razed to the ground, but also the sacred Scriptures were in the public market-places consigned to the flames (Historia Ecclesiastica, VIII, 2). It was, therefore, no idle question what book a loyal Christian must stand for as his Scripture. The question of the canon had an earnest, practical significance. Despite some obscurity and apparent contradictions, his classification of the New Testament books was as follows: (1) The acknowledged books. His criteria for each of these was authenticity and apostolicity and he placed in this list the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles, including He. (2) The disputed books, i.e. those which had obtained only partial recognition, to which he assigned Jas, Jude, 2 Pet and 2 Jn. About the Apocalypse also he was not sure. In this testimony there is not much advance over that of the 3rd century. It is virtually the canon of Origen. All this makes evident the fact that as yet no official decision nor uniformity of usage in the church gave a completed canon. The time, however, was drawing on when various forces at work were to bring much nearer this unanimity and enlarge the list of acknowledged books. In the second half of the 4th century repeated efforts were made to put an end to uncertainty.

(5) Athanasius

Athanasius in one of his pastoral letters in connection with the publishing of the ecclesiastical calendar gives a list of the books comprising Scripture, and in the New Testament portion are included all the 27 books which we now recognize. “These are the wells of salvation,” he writes, “so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add to these. Let nothing be taken away.” Gregory of Nazianzen (died 390 ad) also published a list omitting Revelation, as did Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386), and quite at the end of the century (4th) Isidore of Pelusium speaks of the “canon of truth, the Divine Scriptures.” For a considerable time the Apocalypse was not accepted in the Palestinian or Syrian churches. Athanasius helped toward its acceptance in the church of Alexandria. Some differences of opinion, however, continued. The Syrian church did not accept all of the Catholic epistles until much later.

(6) Council of Carthage, Jerome; Augustine

The Council of Carthage in 397, in connection with its decree “that aside from the canonical Scriptures nothing is to be read in church under the name of Divine Scriptures,” gives a list of the books of the New Testament. After this fashion there was an endeavor to secure unanimity, while at the same time differences of judgment and practice continued. The books which had varied treatment through these early centuries were He, the Apocalypse and the five minor Catholic epistles. The advance of Christianity under Constantine had much to do with the reception of the whole group of books in the East. The task which the emperor gave to Eusebius to prepare “fifty copies of the Divine Scriptures” established a standard which in time gave recognition to all doubtful books. In the West, Jerome and Augustine were the controlling factors in its settlement of the canon. The publication of the Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 ad) virtually determined the matter.

In conclusion let it be noted how much the human element was involved in the whole process of forming our New Testament. No one would wish to dispute a providential overruling of it all. Also it is well to bear in mind that all the books have not the same clear title to their places in the canon as far as the history of their attestation is concerned. Clear and full and unanimous, however, has been the judgment from the beginning upon the Gospels, the Acts, the Pauline epistles, 1 Peter and 1 John.

LiteratureReuss, History of the Canon of Holy Scriptures; E. C. Moore, The New Testament in the Christian Church; Gregory, Canon and Text of the New Testament; Introductions to New Testament of Jülicher, Weiss, Reuss; Zahn, Geschichte des Neutest. Kanons; Harnack, Das New Testament um das Jahr 200; Chronologie der altchristlichen Literatur; Westcott, The Canon of the New Testament; Zahn, Forschungen zur Gesch. des neutest. Kanons.J. S. Riggs


[1] Gospel means “Good News”, the good news is the Messiah came and paid for sins, establishing a way of restoration with the creator.  By accepting Jesus as your Messiah and Lord, you receive Salvation. This is the message the church was to announce to the nations.

[2] Epistles (Letters) written by Paul

[3] Judaisers taught the church must practice the laws of Moses and be circumcised for inclusion into the New Covenant.

[4] Eusebius HE 8.2.4-5

[5]  Bruce Metzger translation from The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance

[6]  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,  Editor James Orr,