The New Testament Canon: Origin and Development

There is much debate concerning the origin and development of the New Testament canon. Some argue that the New Testament canon was determined by Constantine and Nicaea. However, this is not true. The New Testament canon developed throughout the first 250-300 years of Church history.

Marcion (c. 85–160)

Article: Marcion and the New Testament Canon

Marcion was a heretic who believed in dualism. He taught that the God of the Old Testament was an inferior, weaker God who focused too much on the law and that the God taught by Jesus was a superior God who focused on the right things: love, compassion, and mercy.

Marcion developed his own canon to replace what he believed was a faulty canon that included the Old Testament. He believed that Paul was the only apostle who truly understood what Jesus taught.

Below are the 11 books in Marcion’s canon.

Marcion’s Canon

  1. The Gospel of Christ (Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke)
  2. Galatians
  3. 1 Corinthians
  4. 2 Corinthians
  5. Romans
  6. 1 Thessalonians
  7. 2 Thessalonians
  8. Laodiceans
  9. Colossians
  10. Philippians
  11. Philemon

Response to Marcion

Marcion’s canon is the first list we have of a New Testsament “canon,” and his list helped the early church to develop an authoritative canon.

Justin Martyr (c. 100–165)

Justin Martyr was a church father. In his writings, he refers to the “Gospels”:

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me…”

Justin Martyr, ”First Apology”, 66

Tatian and the Diatessaron (c. 170–175)

Tatian was a disciple of Justin Martyr, and he created a harmony of the four orthodox gospels, which was known as the ”Diatessaron”. Although the ‘Diatessaron” did not end up being popular or successful, it tells us that at this time, the church was at least beginning to recognize only four gospels as being authoritative.

Irenaeus (c. 130–202)

Irenaeus was a bishop who stated that there are only four gospels:

From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit.

Irenaeus, ”Against Heresies”, Book 3, 11.8

Irenaeus also quotes from or alludes to most of the books that would ultimately become the orthodox New Testament. The only books that are completely absent from Irenaeus’s writings are Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude.

However, Irenaeus also considered as inspired these two non-canonical books: 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas.

Clement of Alexandria (195–202) and Tertullian (205–225)

Clement and Tertullian were two prolific Christian writers. Their writings include quotations from every canonical New Testament book except four or five (similar to the books Irenaeus excluded).

We should note that Clement also cites several non-canonical writings as “scripture.”

The Muratorian Canon (c. 170–200)

Article: The Muratorian Canon

The Muratorian canon is a manuscript fragment that contains the oldest known list of the books of the New Testament that is orthodox. The list includes the following books:

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (Matthew and Mark are missing because the beginning and the end of the manuscript is missing, but they can be inferred because “four gospels” are mentioned)
  • Acts
  • All 13 epistles of Paul
  • 1 and 2 John (the writer mentions two letters of John)
  • Jude
  • Revelation

The list does not include Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and 3 John. It also includes a few writings that are not part of the orthodox New Testament canon.

Thus, by the end of the second century, most of the 27 books of the New Testament were viewed as inspired and authoritative.

Gnosticism and the Gnostic Gospels

Article: The New Testament Canon and the Gnostic Gospels

Gnosticism reached the height of its popularity during the second century. Gnostic writings, sometimes referred to as the Gnostic gospels, were rejected by orthodox Christians because they contained excessively strange passages and were simply not accepted by churches. One can determine how widely accepted a piece of writing was by looking at if, and how often, church fathers cited the writing.

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is very popular among critics of Christianity. Many argue that there is no good reason why Thomas is not included in the list of canonical gospels.

However, the reason is clear. The Gospel of Thomas is completely different in both style and content from the four canonical gospels, and it contains some irreconcilably bizarre passages.

While the four canonical gospels are similar to historical narratives, the Gospel of Thomas is a collection of Jesus’ sayings. Furthermore, some of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are simply so bizarre that it is obvious that the Gospel of Thomas is in a completely different category than the four canonical gospels. For example:

Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which the man shall eat, and the lion become man; and cursed is the man whom the lion shall eat, and the lion become man.”

The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 7

{{Quote|text=Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life.” Jesus said: “Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 11406 Meadowchase Dr.

The percentage of bizarre passages in the Gnostic writings is far greater than what we find in the canonical gospels. Furthermore, the bizarre passages in the Gnostic “gospels” are far more bizarre than the passages in the New Testament gospels that some may find challenging.

Third and Fourth Century Writers

Throughout the third and fourth century, there were many prolific Christian writers, and in their writings, there are more and more citations of the inspired writings that would ultimately become the New Testament and fewer and fewer citations from works that would ultimately be considered non-canonical.

By the end of the fourth century, there were thousands of citations from all 27 books of the New Testament.

Prolific writers during the third century include Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria, and Cyprian of Carthage.

Writers during the fourth century include Lactantius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Rufinus, and Augustine of Hippo.

Finalization of the New Testament Canon

Athanasius’s ”Easter Letter” (367)

Athanasius, in his ”Easter Letter” in 367, provides the first writing we have that lists the exact 27 books of the New Testament as canonical. In this letter, he writes that only these books should be used in a church service.

Synod of Hippo (393)

At the Synod of Hippo in 393, an official list of books that would be allowed for use in church services was ruled on for the first time. What we know about this synod comes from a reference from the third Synod of Carthage in 397.

Canon 24. Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of divine Scriptures. Moreover, the canonical Scriptures are these: [then follows a list of Old Testament books]. The [books of the] New Testament: the Gospels, four books; the Acts of the Apostles, one book; the Epistles of Paul, thirteen; of the same to the Hebrews; one Epistle; of Peter, two; of John, apostle, three; of James, one; of Jude, one; the Revelation of John. Concerning the confirmation of this canon, the transmarine Church shall be consulted. On the anniversaries of martyrs, their acts shall also be read.

The third Synod of Carthage, 397

The reference from the third Synod of Carthage does not say how the 27 books were determined to be inspired, but we can assume that by this time, there was already almost universal consensus that these are inspired works, due to their self-authenticating qualities.

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