The New Testament Canon
Discussions about the origins of the New Testament are often extraordinarily misleading. Some have revisionists write as if there was no consensus on a New Testament until powerful Christian bishops gathered together in the fourth century to select those books that agreed with their theology and to exclude the more than 80 documents with which they disagreed. This is so misleading and deceptive that it is hard not to think of it as deliberate lying.
First, as will be seen below, the vast majority of books in the New Testament have always been quoted or alluded to as the final authority for the churches--sometimes even being specifically called Scripture or inspired by the Spirit--from as early as we have records, even into the first century.
Second, the so-called "lost gospels" (discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt) were never "kicked out" because it is impossible to kick something out that was never included in the first place! Christian churches never included these lost gospels in their canon--and for good reason. Their worldview is not Christian!
For example, a Judeo-Christian worldview holds to one and only one God. These "lost gospels" proclaim many gods. In a Judeo-Christian worldview, God is good and wise. In some of these "lost gospels the God of the Old Testament is an evil, ignorant God (no wonder some opponents of Christianity like them). In a Christian worldview, Jesus is God and man. In some of these "lost gospels" Jesus is not really human at all. He is just a divine being who appears to be human. In a Christian worldview, Jesus suffered on the Cross. In some of these "lost gospels" Jesus didn't suffer at all. In a Judeo-Christian Worldview, God created them male and female and it was good. In several of these "lost gospels" the female is described as "illness," "madness," defective, and not worthy of life! Asking why these books are not included in the Bible is a bit like asking why the New Testament doesn't include the Atheist Manifesto!
Conservative Evangelicals have sometimes spoken of certain criteria used to determine what books should be part of the New Testament. For example, was the book written by an apostle of Jesus or one of their close associates? These discussions may well have taken place in fourth and fifth century church councils, but there is no record that the earliest churches in the first couple of centuries used any list of criteria. As far as any record exists, there was no disagreement among mainline Christians about a core of New Testament documents (e.g. Gospels, Paul’s letters, First Peter, First John) at any time. In fact, it will be shown that even many of the “heretics” tended to accept this core as sacred.
The following is a brief overview tracing the development of the New Testament “canon” (authoritative list), moving backward in time from the church councils which were convened to discuss the issue at the turn of the fourth century AD, back to the first century AD. It should be noted that since books found in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox “apocrypha” were all written before the time of Jesus they do not fall in the category of New Testament and are not part of this discussion.
Fourth and Third Centuries
We’ll begin by working backwards from those church councils in which “powerful Christian bishops” supposedly selected the current New Testament book and threw out more than 80 other gospels and other documents with which they disagreed. Many of these documents were discovered in 1945 in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. As far as anyone knows, the first Council to discuss the issue of the New Testament Canon was the Council of Hippo in AD 393. The next ones were the Third Council of Carthage in AD 397 and the Sixth Council of Carthage in AD 419. The New Testament agreed on by these councils is identical to the New Testament found in Bibles found in all Bibles since that time (books contained in the Catholic apocrypha were all written before Jesus was born).
Some writers seem to imply, however, that before these councils met, there was virtually no consensus on what books the New Testament should include, and that “powerful bishops” were free to choose from a large number of documents. This idea is simply erroneous. Even before these councils met, the “Canons of Laodicea” (AD 363), Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem (AD 315-386), and Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 330-390) all accepted all the books of the New Testament, except the Book of Revelation. But there is more.
Athanasius (AD 296-373: At least 20 years before Council of Hippo)
One of the earliest and greatest theologians of the early church was a black man named Athanasius. He was certainly one of the most influential bishops in the ancient church, but, far from being “powerful” he spent a considerable amount of time fleeing persecution from powerful heretical bishops. The New Testament of Athanasius included all the books in modern New Testaments and no others. He said that the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas were read to early believers but were not part of the New Testament.
Sinaticus and Vaticanus (AD 325-350: 43/68 years before Council of Hippo)
The entire New Testament was compiled into a single book about a half century or more before the Council of Hippo met. Two of the oldest copies of such books are known by scholars today as Codex Sinaticus and Codex Vaticanus (copied between AD 325 and 350).
Codex Vaticanus contains the modern New Testament through Hebrews 9 after which the text is missing. The order of books in Codex Vaticanus is not the same as that of modern New Testaments. For example, the letter of James is included after the Book of Acts.
Codex Sinaticus, on the other hand, includes all of our New Testament books plus the Letter of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. None of the so-called "lost gospels" from Nag Hammadi are included in either the Vaticanus or Sinaticus.
Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 314-339) 54 years before Council of Hippo)
Eusebius provides a list of New Testament books by category. In his “Universally Acknowledged” category, i.e. accepted by Christians all over the empire, he includes Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, all of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, First John, First Peter and Revelation.
Another category was “Disputed, but recognized by the majority of churches.” In this category were James, Jude, Second Peter, Second and Third John. Finally, Eusebius adds a category of “Spurious”, i.e. rejected by the churches: Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and Revelation. Eusebius probably listed these books because some churches had once recognized some of these books as authoritative.
Churches in Eusebius’ time, as far as Eusebius was aware, seem to have universally rejected these books, although, as seen above, the Sinaticus manuscript includes the Letter of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. Eusebius does not mention any of the books discovered at Nag Hammadi most likely because no churches had ever recognized them as Scripture.
Also, it is interesting that Eusebius included the Book of Revelation both in the “Universally Acknowledged” category and in the “Spurious” Category. Eusebius himself did not believe Revelation was scripture so he put it in the “Spurious category,” but he also listed it in the “Universally acknowledged” because he knew that churches all over the empire considered Revelation part of Scripture.
Origen (AD 184-254) 139 years before Council of Hippo)
As I have understood from tradition, respecting the four gospels, which are the
only undisputed ones in the whole church of God throughout the world. The First
is written according to Matthew, the same that was once a publican, but
afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who having published it for the Jewish
converts, wrote it in the Hebrew. The second is according to Mark, who composed
it, as Peter explained to him....And the third, according to Luke, the gospel
commended by Paul, which was written for the converts from the Gentiles, and the
last of all the gospel according to John. (HE 6.25.4-7. Patzia, 66).
Like Eusebius after him, Origen also distinguished between undisputed and disputed books. In the undisputed category were books apparently recognized by virtually all Christians throughout the empire. In this category Origen lists Matthew, Mark, Luke John, Acts, First John, Revelation and Paul’s letters (Origen doesn’t actually list Paul’s letters, but his citations show he was familiar with all of them). The “disputed” category consisted of books that some churches questioned in Origen’s time. This list included Hebrews, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude, the Didache, the Letter of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. It is important to note that at no time were the Nag Hammadi documents ever even under consideration.
P45 and p46 (AD 200) 193 years before the Council of Hippo)
One of the oldest ancient collections of New Testament Gospels is often designated by scholars as p45 (about AD 200. The p stands for papyrus). P45 is in codex, or book form and contains Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. P46 (also AD 200) is one of the oldest collections of Paul’s letters. Only 86 of 104 leaves (i.e. pages written on one side) have survived but these include Romans (incomplete, beginning with Romans 5:17), Hebrews, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and First Thessalonians.
Irenaeus (184 AD) 209 years before the Council of Hippo
In the 180’s AD Irenaeus, a Bishop in France, quotes extensively from New Testament books, clearly believing them to be inspired by God. He makes it clear that there were four and only four Gospels accepted by the churches: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He quotes from every book in our New Testament except Philemon, James, 2 Peter and 3 John (about 6 pages out of about 260 pages in a modern print Bible). This doesn’t necessarily imply that he rejected these four little letters. It may be that they are just so short that he didn’t have occasion to quote from them.
Aside from these four short letters, Irenaeus quotes from every other book in the New Testament and, in fact, is the first one we know of to have actually called this collection “The New Testament” (twice). Numerous times he refers to individual writings in this collection as being Scripture and inspired by God, but not only that, he never sees the need to argue this point but always just seems to assume that his readers everywhere will agree with him. Although the exact boundaries of the New Testament were still under discussion (i.e., whether Hebrews, Revelation or the Letter of Barnabas, etc. were Scripture), the core of the New Testament does not seem to be in dispute at all.
What drove Irenaeus nuts was that although the “heretics” appealed for their authority to the same New Testament writings that Irenaeus did, they ripped passages and words out of context and interpreted them to say things entirely different from anything the original authors could possibly have intended. For example, they took Paul’s use of common Greek word for “peace,” “wisdom” etc., and turned them into the proper names for some of their gods! By the way, we now know, from the Nag Hammadi documents, that Irenaeus was entirely accurate in this analysis.
Second, it drove Irenaeus nuts that the “heretics” would add their recent fictional creations to the books that Christians had accepted for so long as sacred. Irenaeus argued that Christians could trace their beliefs back to the original apostles and followers of Jesus himself, whereas the “heretics” were coming up with fictional gospels to support their nonsensical doctrines that no one had ever heard of before.
Tatian (AD 110-180) 213 years before the Council of Hippo
Tatian wrote the first known harmony of the four New Testament Gospels. This harmony appears to have been considered authoritative among Syrian Christians. Tatian also quotes James 1:5 as Scripture.
Muratorian Canon (AD 170) 223 years before the Council of Hippo
Although, as shown below, by the end of the second century, the Gospels and Paul’s letters had been accepted by Christians as Scripture for decades, one of the earliest known attempts to provide a list of sacred Christian documents was complied about AD 170. This list is now known as the Muratorian Canon, named after its discoverer. Several lines are missing from the beginning of this ancient list but what is left says that Luke is the third and that John is the fourth of the Gospels. Scholars have little doubt that Matthew and Mark were first and second.
The Muratorian Canon contains all of Paul’s letters and Acts of the Apostles, saying specifically that it was written by Luke. The only books contained in modern New Testaments that were omitted by the Muratorian Canon were Hebrews, James, First and Second Peter, and possibly 3rd John.
The Apocalypse of Peter was included, though the writer acknowledges that not all churches agree. This seems to imply that other churches agreed on the basic core of the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, First Peter, First, John, etc. The apocryphal “Wisdom of Solomon was accepted and The Shepherd of Hermas may be read, but since the author of the Mauratorian Canon says the Shepherd of Hermas was written in his own time, he does not place it on the same level as the other New Testament books.
Marcion (AD 100-165) 228 years before the Council of Hippo
Marcion had strong disagreements with the mainline church over the nature of God. The God of Jesus, the apostles and mainline Christians was the Jewish God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Marcion argued that this God was an inferior “demiurge” and that Jesus came to reveal a rival God to this Jewish God. In AD 144 Marcion was excommunicated from the church for his views.
Marcion deliberately selected Christian writings that would not contradict his theology. His bible consisted of Paul’s letters of Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, First and Second Thessalonians, and as well as the Gospel of Luke, which he purged of parts he deemed to be too Jewish. He rejected Matthew, Mark and Luke as being entirely too Jewish. The significance of this is that even someone like Marcion who was called a “heretic” and was excommunicated by the church, accepted a significant part of the New Testament as Scripture as early as AD 140. Those Marcion left out were omitted because of his anti-Semitic views.
Justin Martyr (AD 100-163) 230 years before the Council of Hippo
Justin Martyr writes that on Sundays the “memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.” That “memoirs of the apostles” is a reference to the Gospels is inferred from the fact that Justin often quotes from them, and no others, as his authority. That they are read along with the prophets in the churches implies that they are considered Scripture by the churches.
Basilides (fl. AD 120-145) 248 years before the Council of Hippo
Basilides was a Gnostic leader who was viewed as heretical by the mainline church. He uses the formula “as it is written” to introduce a quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The same writer quotes Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as Scripture as well. Basilides’ status as a leader of a sect of Gnostic “Christians” may indicate that his opinion of Paul’s letters as Scripture is not just a private opinion, but shared by his followers as well.
Marcion and Basilides are both examples of very early “heretical” leaders who agreed with the church in accepting at least some of Paul’s letters as Scripture.
Papias (AD 70-140) 253 years before the Council of Hippo
Papias (AD 70-140) was a bishop of Hierapolis in what is now modern Turkey. He was reported to have been a disciple of St. John. He says that Mark wrote down what he had heard Peter preaching and that Matthew had first written in Hebrew (Aramaic?).
Letter of Barnabas (AD 70-130) 263+ years before the Council of Hippo
In the Letter of Barnabas, written some otherwise unknown Christian some time between AD 70 and 130, the author introduces a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew with the words, “as it is written,” which is a formula used to designate a quotation from sacred Scripture.
Polycarp (AD 69-155; writing about 120) 273 years before the Council of Hippo
Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna in what would be modern Turkey. He specifically called Paul’s letter to the Ephesians “Scripture.” He apparently had the same view of Paul’s other letters as well because he quoted several of them as his authority. Again, Polycarp was not writing as a private citizen but as a bishop who represented the churches in his region. This would seem to be evidence that the view of Paul’s letters as Scripture was not just isolated to one region, like Rome, but was widespread. In his letter to the Philippians, Polycarp is already quoting or alluding (as his authority) to passages from Matthew, Acts, Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Second Thessalonians, First and Second Timothy, First Peter and First John.
It is important to note that these early second century writers, and others not mentioned, like Ignatius (AD 50-117) the author of the Didache (AD 70-150) or Epistle of Diognetus (AD150-225), constantly cite or allude to books now contained in the New Testament as if their readers will accept them as authoritative.
They write as if there is no need to introduce their copious quotes of New Testament books by reminding readers that these books are sacred or authoritative. They seem to assume that their readers will understand that.
While conservative evangelicals believe that the New Testament letter of First Timothy was written in the early 60’s AD by St. Paul, critical scholars believe it was written by followers of Paul somewhere around the 80’s AD. Regardless of who is correct, the author of First Timothy (5:18) cites as “Scripture” a phrase that appears only in Luke 10:17. This would seem to indicate that in at least some circles, the Gospel of Luke was considered Scripture before the end of the first century AD, and maybe even as early as the middle of the first century AD.
While many evangelicals believe that the letter of Second Peter was written by Peter in the 60’s AD, critical scholars are virtually unanimous in arguing that Second Peter was written by an anonymous writer some time between AD 80 and 130. Again, regardless of who is correct, the author of this letter refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). While it is impossible to know exactly how many or which ones of Paul’s letters the author had in mind, the implication was that by the end of the first century, or at latest, the beginning of the second, there existed a recognizable collection of Paul’s writings that at least some Christians believed to be Scripture.
In AD 96, Clement, the Bishop of Rome, wrote a letter to the Corinthians. In this letter he quotes from the New Testament Gospels, calling them Scripture. He also calls Hebrew scripture and in chapter 47 of this letter, Clement refers to the letter Paul had sent to the Corinthians, saying that Paul wrote it under inspiration of the Spirit. Since Clement was not just a private individual, and Rome was one of the centers of Christianity, it seems likely that the idea that at least the Gospels and Paul’s letters were considered Scripture by the churches even before the end of the first century AD.
While this evidence doesn’t prove that the Gospels or Paul’s letters are inspired by God, they do show that they were believed to be sacred by at least some Christians as early as the turn of the first century or earlier.
It is important to note that the idea that powerful Christian bishops in the fourth century sorted through 80 gospels and just kept the four they agreed with is absolute nonsense! The fact is that the Gospels, Paul’s letters, First Peter, and First John have been cited by Christians (and even “heretics” as authoritative for as long as we have record. The Gospel of Luke and Paul’s letters are even cited as Scripture before the end of the first century AD. Although the exact boundaries of the canon continued to be debated up until the church councils, there was unanimous agreement on the core of the New Testament two or three hundred years before these church councils ever met!
Finally, it is ironic that radical revisionist critics, who for so long have denigrated the first century Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) for being written too long after the time of Jesus (40-70 years), are now speaking in such glowing terms of truly bizarre and unquestionably unhistorical gospels written 100-300 years after Jesus—as if these later gospels should have been considered on the same level as the first century Gospels! Clearly something other than objective scholarship is going on.
Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1. Peabody MA : Hendrickson, 1885.
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL : Intervarsity Press, 1988.
Holmes, Michael, ed. The Apostolic Fathers. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids : Baker, 1989.
Patzia, Arthur G. The Making of the New Testament. Downers Grove, IL : Intervarsity Press, 1995.