Chap­ter 3 : The Canon of the New Testament

CHAPTER III
THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT1

Even when we have come to a con­clu­sion about the date and ori­gin of the indi­vid­ual books of the New Tes­ta­ment, anoth­er ques­tion remains to be answered. How did the New Tes­ta­ment itself as a col­lec­tion of writ­ings come into being ? Who col­lect­ed the writ­ings, and on what prin­ci­ples ? What cir­cum­stances led to the fix­ing of a list, or canon, of author­i­ta­tive books ?

The his­toric Chris­t­ian belief is that the Holy Spir­it, who con­trolled the writ­ing of the indi­vid­ual books, also con­trolled their selec­tion ant col­lec­tion, thus con­tin­u­ing to ful­fil our Lord’s promise that He would guide His dis­ci­ples into all the truth. This, how­ev­er, is some­thing that is to be dis­cerned by spir­i­tu­al insight, and not by his­tor­i­cal research. Our object is to find out what his­tor­i­cal research reveals about the ori­gin of the New Tes­ta­ment canon. Some will tell us that we receive the twen­ty­sev­en books of the New Tes­ta­ment on the author­i­ty of the Church ; but even if we do, how did the Church come to recog­nise these twen­ty­sev­en and no oth­ers as wor­thy of being placed on a lev­el of inspi­ra­tion and author­i­ty with the Old Tes­ta­ment canon ?

The mat­ter is over­sim­pli­fied in Arti­cle VI of the Thir­ty Nine Arti­cles, when it says : In the name of the holy Scrip­ture we do under­stand those canon­i­cal Books of the Old and New Tes­ta­ment, of whose author­i­ty was nev­er any doubt in the Church.’ For, leav­ing on one side the ques­tion of the Old Tes­ta­ment canon, it is not quite accu­rate to say that there her nev­er been any doubt in the Church of any of our New Tes­ta­ment book’. A few of the short­er Epis­tles (e.g. g Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude) ant the Rev­e­la­tion were much longer in being accept­ed in some parts than in oth­ers ; while else­where books which we do not now include in the New Tes­ta­ment were received as canon­i­cal. Thus the Codex Sinaiti­cus includ­ed the Epis­tle of Barn­abas’ and the Shep­herd of Her­mas, a Roman work of about AD 110 or ear­li­er, while the Codex Alexan­dri­nus includ­ed the writ­ings known as the First and Sec­ond Epis­tles of Clement ; ant the inclu­sion of these works along­side the bib­li­cal writ­ings prob­a­bly indi­cates that they were accord­ed some degree of canon­i­cal status.

The ear­li­est list of New Tes­ta­ment books of which we have def­i­nite knowl­edge was drawn up at Rome by the heretic Mar­cion about 40. Mar­cion dis­tin­guished the infe­ri­or Cre­ator­God of the Old Tes­ta­ment from the God and Father revealed in Christ, and believed that the Church ought to jet­ti­son all that apper­tained to the for­mer. This the­o­log­i­cal anti­Semitism’ involved the reject­ing not only of the entire Old Tes­ta­ment but also of those parts of the New Tes­ta­ment which seemed to him to be infect­ed with Judaism. So Mar­cion’s canon con­sist­ed of two parts : (a) an expur­gat­ed edi­tion of the third Gospel, which is the least Jew­ish of the Gospels, being writ­ten by the Gen­tile Luke ; and (b) ten of the Pauline Epis­tles (the three Pas­toral Epis­tles’ being omit­ted). Mar­cion’s list, how­ev­er, toes not rep­re­sent the cur­rent ver­dict of the Church but a delib­er­ate aber­ra­tion from it.

Anoth­er ear­ly list, also of Roman prove­nance, dat­ed about the end of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, is that com­mon­ly called the Mura­to­ri­an Frag­ment’, because it was first pub­lished in Italy in 1740 by the anti­quar­i­an Car­di­nal L. A. Mura­tori. It is unfor­tu­nate­ly muti­lat­ed at the begin­ning, but it evi­dent­ly men­tioned Matthew and Mark, because it refers to Luke as the third Gospel ; then It men­tions John, Acts, Paul’s nine let­ters to church­es and four to indi­vid­u­als (Phile­mon, Titus, I and 2 Tim­o­thy),’ Jude, two Epis­tles of John, and the Apoc­a­lypse of John ant that of Peter.’ The Shep­herd of Her­mas is men­tioned as wor­thy to be read (i.e. in church) but not to be includ­ed in the num­ber of prophet­ic or apos­tolic writings.

The first steps in the for­ma­tion of a canon of author­i­ta­tive Chris­t­ian books, wor­thy to stand beside the Old Tes­ta­ment canon, which was the Bible of our Lord and His apos­tles, appear to have been tak­en about the begin­ning of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, when there is evi­dence for the cir­cu­la­tion of two col­lec­tions of Chris­t­ian writ­ings in the Church.

At a very ear­ly date it appears that the four Gospels were unites in one col­lec­tion. They must have been brought togeth­er very soon after the writ­ing of the Gospel accord­ing to John. This four­fold col­lec­tion was known orig­i­nal­ly as The Gospel’ in the sin­gu­lar, not The Gospels’ in the plur­al ; there was only one Gospel, nar­rat­ed in four records, dis­tin­guish­es as accord­ing to Matthew’, accord­ing to Mark’, and so on. About AD 115 Ignatius, bish­op of Anti­och, refers to The Gospel’ as an author­i­ta­tive writ­ing, and as he knew more than one of the four Gospels’ it may well be that by The Gospel’ sans phrase he means the four­fold col­lec­tion which went by that name.

About AD 170 an Assyr­i­an Chris­t­ian names Tat­ian turned the four­fold Gospel into a con­tin­u­ous nar­ra­tive or Har­mo­ny of the Gospels’, which for long was the favourite if not the offi­cial form of the four­fold Gospel in the Assyr­i­an Church. It was dis­tinct from the four Gospels in the Old Syr­i­ac ver­sion.’ It is not cer­tain whether Tat­ian orig­i­nal­ly com­posed his Har­mo­ny, usu­al­ly known as the Diates­saron, in Greek or in Syr­i­ac ; but as it seems to have been com­piled at Rome its orig­i­nal lan­guage was prob­a­bly Greek, ant a frag­ment of Tatian’s Diates­saron in Greek was dis­cov­ered m the year 1933 at Dura-Euro­pos on the Euphrates. At any rate, it was giv­en to the Assyr­i­an Chris­tians in a Syr­i­ac form when Tat­ian returned home from Rome, and this Syr­i­ac Diates­saron remained the Autho­rised Ver­sion’ of the Gospels for them until it was replaced by the Peshit­ta or sim­ple’ ver­sion in the fifth century.

By the time of Ire­naeus, who, though a native of Asia Minor, was bish­op of Lyons in Gaul about AD 180, the idea of a four­fold Gospel had become so axiomat­ic in the Church at large that he can refer to it as an estab­lished and recog­nised fact as obvi­ous as the four car­di­nal points of the com­pass or the four winds :

For as there are four quar­ters of the world in which we live, an d four uni­ver­sal winds, and as the Church is dis­persed over all the earth, and the gospel is’ the pil­lar and base of the Church and the breath of life, so it is nat­ur­al that it should have four pil­lars, breath­ing immor­tal­i­ty from every quar­ter arid kin­dling the life of men anew. Whence it is man­i­fest that the Word, the archi­tect of all things, who sits upon the cheru­bim and holds all things togeth­er, hav­ing been man­i­fest­ed to men, has giv­en us the gospel in four­fold form, but held togeth­er by one Spirit.”

When the four Gospels were gath­ered togeth­er in one vol­ume, it meant the sev­er­ance of the two parts of Luke’s his­to­ry. When Luke and Acts were thus sep­a­rat­ed one or two mod­i­fi­ca­tions were appar­ent­ly intro­duced into the text at the end of Luke and the begin­ning of Acts. Orig­i­nal­ly Luke seems to have left all men­tion of the ascen­sion to his sec­ond trea­tise ; now the words and was car­ried up into heav­en’ were added in Luke xxiv. 51, to round off the nar­ra­tive, and in con­se­quence was tak­en up’ was added in Acts i. 2. Thus the inconcin­ni­ties which some have detect­ed between the accounts of the ascen­sion in Luke and Acts are most like­ly due to these adjust­ments made when the two books were sep­a­rat­ed from each other..

Acts, how­ev­er, nat­u­ral­ly shared the author­i­ty and pres­tige of the third Gospel, being the work of the same author, and was appar­ent­ly received as canon­i­cal by all except Mar­cion and his fol­low­ers. Indeed, Acts occu­pied a very impor­tant place in the New Tes­ta­ment canon, being the piv­otal book of the New Tes­ta­ment, as Har­nack called it, since it links the Gospels with the Epis­tles, and, by its record of the con­ver­sion, call, and mis­sion­ary ser­vice of Paul, showed clear­ly how real an apos­tolic author­i­ty lay behind the Pauline Epistles.

The cor­pus Paulinum, or col­lec­tion of Paul’s writ­ings, was brought togeth­er about the same time as the col­lect­ing of the four­fold Gospel. As the Gospel col­lec­tion was des­ig­nat­ed by the Greek word Euan­ge­lion, so the Pauline col­lec­tion was des­ig­nat­ed by the one word Apos­to­los, each let­ter being dis­tin­guished as To the Romans’, First to the Corinthi­ans’, and so on. Before long, the anony­mous Epis­tle to the Hebrews was bound up with the Pauline writ­ings. Acts, as a mat­ter of con­ve­nience, came to be bound up with the Gen­er­al Epis­tles’ (those of Peter, James, John and Jude).

The only books about which there was any sub­stan­tial doubt after the mid­dle of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry were some of those which come at the end of our New Tes­ta­ment. Ori­gen (185254) men­tions the four Gospels, the Acts, the thir­teen Paulines, I Peter, 1 John and Rev­e­la­tion as acknowl­edged by all ; he says that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude, with the Epis­tle of Barn­abas’, the Shep­herd of Her­mas, the Didache, and the Gospel accord­ing to the Hebrews’, were dis­put­ed by some. Euse­bius (c. 265 – 340) men­tions as gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged all the books of our New Tes­ta­ment except James, Jude, Peter, 2 and 3 John, which were dis­put­ed by some, but recog­nised by the major­i­ty.’ Athana­sius in 367 lays down the twen­ty sev­en books of our New Tes­ta­ment as alone canon­i­cal ; short­ly after­wards Jerome and Augus­tine fol­lowed his exam­ple in the West. The process far­ther east took a lit­tle longer ; it was not until c. 508 that 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Rev­e­la­tion were includ­ed in a ver­sion of the Syr­i­ac Bible in addi­tion to the oth­er twen­ty two books.

For var­i­ous rea­sons it was nec­es­sary for the Church to know exact­ly what books were divine­ly author­i­ta­tive. The Gospels, record­ing all that Jesus began both to do and to teach’, could not be regard­ed as one whit low­er in author­i­ty than the Old Tes­ta­ment books. And the teach­ing of the apos­tles in the Acts and Epis­tles was regard­ed as vest­ed with His author­i­ty. It was nat­ur­al, then, to accord to the apos­tolic writ­ings of the new covenant the same degree of homage as was already paid to the prophet­ic writ­ings of the old. Thus Justin Mar­tyr, about AD 150, class­es the Mem­oirs of the Apos­tles’ along with the writ­ings of the prophets, sav­ing that both were read in meet­ings of Chris­tians (Apol i. 67). For the Church did not, in spite of the breach with Judaism, repu­di­ate the author­i­ty of the Old Tes­ta­men­ty, but, fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Christ and His apos­tles, received it as the Word of God. Indeed, so much did they make the Sep­tu­agint their own that, although it was orig­i­nal­ly a trans­la­tion of the Hebrew Scrip­tures into Greek for Greek speak­ing Jews before the time of Christ, the Jews left the Sep­tu­agint to the Chris­tians, and a fresh Greek ver­sion of the Old Tes­ta­ment was made for Greek speak­ing Jews.

It was spe­cial­ly impor­tant to deter­mine which books might be used for the estab­lish­ment of Chris­t­ian doc­trine, and which might most con­fi­dent­ly be appealed to in dis­putes with heretics In par­tic­u­lar, when Mar­cion drew up his canon about AD 140, it was nec­es­sary for the ortho­dox church­es to know exact­ly what the true canon was, and this helped to speed up a process which had already begun. It is wrong, how­ev­er, to talk or write as if the Church first began to draw up a canon after Mar­cion had pub­lished his.

Oth­er cir­cum­stances which demand­ed clear def­i­n­i­tion of those books which pos­sessed divine author­i­ty were the neces­si­ty of decid­ing which books should be read in church ser­vices (though cer­tain books might be suit­able for this pur­pose which could not be used to set­tle doc­tri­nal ques­tions), and the neces­si­ty of know­ing which books might and might not be hand­ed over on demand to the impe­r­i­al police in times of per­se­cu­tion with­out incur­ring the guilt of sacrilege.

One thing must be emphat­i­cal­ly stat­ed. The New Tes­ta­ment books did not become author­i­ta­tive for the Church because they were for­mal­ly includ­ed in a canon­i­cal list ; on the con­trary, the Church includ­ed them in her canon because she already regard­ed them as divine­ly inspired, recog­nis­ing their innate worth and gen­er­al­ly apos­tolic author­i­ty, direct or indi­rect. The first eccle­si­as­ti­cal coun­cils to clas­si­fy the canon­i­cal books were both held in North Africa-at Hip­po Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397-but what these coun­cils did was not to impose some­thing new upon the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties but to cod­i­fy what was already the gen­er­al prac­tice of those communities.

There are many the­o­log­i­cal ques­tions aris­ing out of the his­to­ry of the canon which we can­not go into here ; but for a prac­ti­cal demon­stra­tion that the Church made the right choice one need only com­pare the books of our New Tes­ta­ment with the var­i­ous ear­ly doc­u­ments col­lect­ed by M. R. James in his Apoc­ryphal New Tes­ta­ment (1924), or even with the writ­ings of the Apos­tolic Fathers, to realise the supe­ri­or­i­ty of our New Tes­ta­ment books to these others.’

A word may be added about the Gospel accord­ing to the Hebrews’ which, as was men­tioned above, Ori­gen list­ed as one of the books which in his day were dis­put­ed by some. This work, which cir­cu­lat­ed in Tran­sjor­dan and Egypt among the Jew­ish Chris­t­ian groups called Ebion­ites, bore some affin­i­ty to the canon­i­cal Gospel of Matthew. Per­haps it was an inde­pen­dent expan­sion of an Ara­ma­ic doc­u­ment relat­ed to our canon­i­cal Matthew it was known to some of the ear­ly Chris­t­ian Fathers in a Greek version.

Jerome (347420) iden­ti­fied this Gospel accord­ing to the Hebrews’ with one which he found in Syr­ia, called the Gospel of the Nazarene, and which he mis­tak­en­ly thought at first was the Hebrew (or Ara­ma­ic) orig­i­nal of Matthew. It is pos­si­ble that he was also mis­tak­en in iden­ti­fy­ing it with the gospel accord­ing to the Hebrews ; the Nazarene Gospel found by Jerome (and trans­lat­ed by him into Greek and Latin) may sim­ply have been an Ara­ma­ic trans­la­tion of the canon­i­cal creek Matthew. 

In any case, the Gospel accord­ing to the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Nazarenes’ both had some rela­tion to Matthew, and they are to be dis­tin­guished from the mul­ti­tude of apoc­ryphal Gospels which were also cur­rent in those days, and which have no bear­ing on our present his­tor­i­cal study. These, like sev­er­al books of apoc­ryphal Act’, and sim­i­lar writ­ings, are almost entire­ly pure romances. One of the books of apoc­ryphal Acts, how­ev­er, the Acts of Paul’, while admit­ted­ly a romance of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry,’ is inter­est­ing because of a pen-por­trait of Paul which it con­tain’, and which, because of its vig­or­ous and uncon­ven­tion­al char­ac­ter, was thought by Sir William Ram­say to embody a tra­di­tion of the apos­tle’s appear­ance pre­served in Asia Minor. Paul is described as a man small in size, with meet­ing eye­brows, with a rather large nose, bald-head­ed, bow­legged, strong­ly built, full of grace, for at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel’. Endmark

Cite this arti­cle as : F. F. Bruce, Chap­ter 3 : The Canon of the New Tes­ta­ment,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Octo­ber 14, 2005, last accessed April 14, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​b​i​b​l​e​/​c​a​n​o​n​-​o​f​-​t​h​e​-​n​e​w​-​t​e​s​t​a​m​e​nt/
  1. Repro­duced from F.F. Bruce, New Tes­ta­ment Doc­u­ments : Are They Reli­able?” (2003)[]

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