The Early Canon Process of the New Testament

The following article was originally published in the October 1989 issue of The Dividing Line Theological Journal. The article is presented in its entirety as it was published.

The Early Canon Process
of the
New Testament
James White

The traditional Protestant concept of Scripture is difficult to extract from the concept of canon, so closely are the two connected in Protestant thought. For the Reformers and those who follow in their path, the Bible as a unit makes up the sole basis of authority – sola Scriptura was the Reformer’s cry. And Calvin rightly added, Scriptura tota to that phrase. Yet both credos assume a body of Scripture to which appeal can be made for authority. But on what basis can the Church say “this is Scripture and this is not”? Why do Protestants have but 66 books in their canon, while Roman Catholics have more, and certain smaller groups (mainly in the “Monophysite” traditions) have fewer?

The concept of canon is vital, then, to Protestants who look to the completed revelation of God in the Bible as their sole source of information and authority in the spiritual realm. If all other facets of experience are to be subjugated to the scrutinizing judgment of the Bible, then the extent of that book – its canon – will prove to be a very important topic of discussion.

From the start it is plain that the concept of canon is related closely to other theological concepts – the concept of “inspiration” as well as “revelation” must needs have its say in the review of the canon. The relationship between the Church and the Bible is vital as well. No one can completely isolate the discussion of the process of canonization without discussing related topics, though care should be taken to try to differentiate between these things on a basic level.

Some see a fairly distinct disjunction between the discussions of “Scripture” and “canon.” But it seems difficult to discuss the one without the other, as the canon presupposes Scripture, and any discussion of Scripture presupposes a corpus of writings that are inspired – a canon.1 Added to this is the Protestant doctrine of Scripture, which sees as part of its purpose the impartation of a sufficient and complete knowledge of God and His will to man. Since God does not change, Scripture itself takes on this aspect of God’s being and is seen to be, in its actual form, static or “closed.” God does not need to “edit” His Word to “update” it to modern times, nor does He have to continually add to it. The coming of Jesus, and His role as the final and full revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-2) also gives form to the Protestant conception of canon aside from giving vital authority to both Testaments of Scripture, one in retrospect and one in future writing. When the Reformers thought of “Scripture” they thought of it concretely – that is, the Scripture. The mention of the term would call to mind a particular collection of books. Rarely is it thought of abstractly as “scripture” outside of the books of the Bible. The Reformers did not think that they, for example, were writing “Scripture” themselves. And all of this presupposes the canon.

It is important to note, in passing, that this does not mean that God is not actively involved in granting understanding and illumination to individual believers or the Church corporately today – indeed, it would seem that He is most eager to do so. But there is a difference between revelation on the level of Scripture and illumination on the level of understanding. It would seem that the theology of the Reformation, as a whole, is far more “Biblical” than many of the early Fathers themselves (witness Origen!) despite the passage of time. It would seem that the advantages of a completed Biblical text, as well as the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the minds and lives of men and women committed to the Word of God, results in a great deal of illumination of the text, without the need of further revelation. This is simply to affirm the sufficiency of that which has already been revealed – it needs no supplement, only the explanation of the Holy Spirit to the Church and to the individual.

New Testament Foundations for
Canon Process

I have chosen to title this work “The Early Canon Process of the New Testament” because of the fact that the canon of the New Testament developed over time in the consciousness of the Church. This is not to say that, in one respect, the canon was not “closed” or “complete” when the last writer laid down his pen from writing, for from that perspective the canon was indeed “closed” at that time. But it will be evident from the later review of the early Fathers that the canon list itself developed over time – no one, for example, in the second century had exactly the list of New Testament books which we have today (though, as we will see, the list was very close to our own). What we see in the early Fathers is the human process (I believe guided by the Holy Spirit) by which the completed canon of New Testament Scripture was recognized by the Church herself. Not only this, but it is evident that though there was a consciousness of the authority of the writings of the apostles of the Lord quite early (even evidenced within the New Testament itself) the exact relationship between the Scriptures themselves (hai graphai) – that is, the Old Testament -and the writings of the New as found in Paul or the Gospels, had not yet been worked out completely.

When speaking of the canon of the New Testament, it is important to note some of the foundations for the concept of a collected work of writings that would, eventually, be equal in authority to the Old. Here again we are faced with the inter-relatedness of “canon” and “Scripture.” For example, it seems that we have an indication of Jesus’ recognition of what we would today call the “Palestinian” canon of the Old Testament in Matthew 23:34-36 where Jesus calls as witness against that generation all the martyrs from Abel to Zechariah son of Berechiah. The story of Abel is found, of course, in Genesis, and it is probable that the allusion is to the stoning of Zechariah son of Jehoida in 2 Chronicles 24. If this is so, then this would be a reference to the entire content of the Hebrew canon, for Genesis stood at the head of the list, and 2 Chronicles at the end. It might also be noted that there is no hint of a controversy between Jesus and His opposers as to what was, and what was not, “canon” Scripture. Certainly Jesus attacked the traditions of the elders that were elevated to the point of taking the place of the Scriptures, but even this presupposes a body of Scriptures that could be eclipsed by the traditions of men. Jesus’ own ministry and teaching, then, provides a foundational viewpoint that Scripture existed at the time as a body of writings.

In 2 Peter 3:16 we find Peter warning his readers that untaught and unstable men would distort the writings of our dear brother Paul “as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” Clearly Peter is familiar with a body of Paul’s writings (his letter’s) and he places them on a par with the rest of the Scriptures. We may, on the basis of this text (and this text has functioned as part of the argument for a very late date for 2 Peter given certain presuppositional beliefs), assert that Peter had a fairly clear concept that further Scripture had been written that was as authoritative as the Old Testament – we shall see, however, that this clarity of thought took quite a while to develop throughout the Church.

Paul himself seems to provide a further example of inter-authentification by the New Testament authors. In I Timothy 5:18 Paul connects two citations – one from Deuteronomy 25:4 and the second from either Luke 10:7 or Matthew 10:10 (depending on the textual variant in Matthew). This seems to be similar to Peter’s connection of Paul’s writings with the “other Scriptures” and it is difficult to find a subordination in the realm of authority of the citation of Luke to the Old Testament citation. It could be argued, of course, that the authority of the Lukan passage was not so much due to the book of Luke as it is to the fact that this is a direct quotation of the Lord Jesus, and His words were always given equal authority to the Old Testament by the early believers.

Though these are but a few passages, they give the impression that the writers themselves, though not directly asserting Scriptural status for their own writings, did indeed understand that God was about “adding” this new chapter to His revelation of old. This understanding will provide the foundation upon which the later Fathers will build.

Old Testament as a Paradigm

When one looks at the canon process of the New Testament, one is struck by the similarity between that and the process in the Old. Hence, somewhat as an excursus, we will look at the canon process of the Old Testament as a paradigm for what we will see in the New. We feel justified in doing so on the basis that all of Scripture is equally inspired and authoritative, and hence the method that God chose to use to bring about the Old Testament canon (and we add a canon to which we feel Jesus gave His authority) should give us good direction and shed much light upon the New.

The first thing we note is the cessation of prophetic activity. When Josephus writes Against Apion (1.8)2 he lists the twenty two books of the Old Testament canon as if they have existed that way for hundreds of years. He also notes,

It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes, very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time;

Josephus’ opinion was not just his own. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin we read,

Our Rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachai, the Holy Spirit [of prophetic inspiration] departed from Israel; yet they were still able to avail themselves of the Bath-kol.3

Isidore Epstein offers a footnote to this passage that indicates that Bath-kol is a “divine voice, of secondary rank to prophecy.” Hence, we see that the Jewish people themselves, the people of God, sensed that an era had passed and a new one had dawned. They differentiated between the authority of the former prophets and the writings of current religious figures.

Secondly, there was a process of collection and collation of biblical materials. Exactly how the Hebrew form of the Old Testament came about is a matter of much speculation. The

“Since God does not change, Scripture itself takes on this aspect of God’s being…”

“three-fold canon” of Law, Prophets and Writings (from which the common term Tanakh in Hebrew is derived – TNK coming from Torah, Nebubim, Ketibim) may indicate order of canonization – or it might indicate something else – we simply cannot be sure. Many point to the Biblical Ezra as the first to begin the process of collection and collation of the Old Testament books. The important point to notice is that the listing of the books was not immediate, but was the subject of discussion and thinking on the part of God’s people. There were no “heavenly indices” delivered by angelic messenger from the divine proof-writer in the sky – rather, God worked through His people and the circumstances of history to give shape and form to His Word.

The role of the people of God in the formation of the Old Testament canon cannot be overemphasized. It was not simply a group of crusty old men who sat down one day before a pile of would-be-canonical writings and decided, by vote or by lot, which would be included and which would not. God’s people, as they experienced God’s leadership and providence in the course of history, recognized the inherent inspiration and authority of the books of the Bible. Certainly there was dissension and discussion about certain books – the so called “anti-legomena”. But there is everything right in carefully examining, for example, Esther, to determine whether it should be canonical or not. God’s people were not, by so doing, placing themselves as “judges” over those materials. They were, rather, seeking to recognize that which was already done in God’s providence. They sought to be custodians of the “oracles of God” and as such, to be good stewards in not delivering to the rest of the world writings that did not live up to the standards and content of inspired Writ. We shall see a very similar process taking place in the New Testament.

Key Historical Elements in
Forming the Christian Canon

In the early history of the church there were events and people that gave impetus and rise to the formalization of the canon list. These things could be viewed as being used of God to prompt His people, the Church, to give serious consideration to providing to all concerned a listing of the books which the Church, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, received as authoritative. Let it again be noted that it is not being stated that the books, by being considered canon, received authority. Rather, it was the process whereby the church recognized the authority already inherent in the books by virtue of their authorship inspiration. As Bruce has said,

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, recognizing their innate worth and general apostolic
authority, direct or indirect.4

One of the most important movements that gave rise to a growing concern for a canonical list was that headed by Marcion. When Marcion left communion with the church at Rome, he promulgated a list of authoritative books that was carefully tailored to suit his theological needs. Drawing from certain forms of Gnosticism, Marcion posited the idea that the Old Testament was the revelation of a demi-urge, and  certainly not the work of the loving Father of Jesus Christ. Marcion taught a complete disjunction between the Jewish people and the work of God through Jesus Christ in the Christian church. Hence, his “canon” of Scripture reflected his theology. His sharp editor’s pen removed pretty much all reference to the Jewish people, or any indication (and there are many) that the early Christians viewed themselves as the
direct inheritors of the Old Testament promises and lineage. This resulted in a rather mauled edition of the Gospel of Luke, as well as carefully edited portions of Acts and the Pauline epistles. But even Paul, whom Marcion considered the sole inheritor of the true Gospel message (over against the disciples who failed to break away from the old traditions of their past), did not escape the editor’s knife, as the section concerning Israel disappeared from his letter to the Romans as well.

The true gnostics as well made their contribution to the formal recognition of the canonical books. Valentinus, whose name is attached to that system known as “Valentinian gnosticism”, too presented a challenge to the church. It was not so much that Valentinus chose different books, as he interpreted them in very different ways. The question here was one of authority to interpret as well as content of Scripture.

Around the same time we see the rise of Montanism. Even Tertullian, who so strongly fought against Marcion, was taken in by the  charismatic nature of the Montanist movement. Montanism too brought up questions of authority, but here the question was prompted by one aspect of the nature of the movement itself. Montanus and his traveling prophetesses from Phyrgia claimed to be receiving “revelation” directly from God. How, then, does this relate to the Scriptures? Should the utterances of this one who claims to be a prophet of God be given equal stature beside the writings of the apostles and prophets? Who is to decide and on what basis?

These movements and teachings prompted serious thought on the part of the early Fathers to whom these matters were a concern. They felt pressed to be able to provide a reply to those who they saw were attacking the historical Christian faith. Tertullian, for example, dealt with both Marcion’s concepts and Valentinus’ teachings:

One man perverts the Scriptures with his hand, another their meaning by his exposition. For although Valentinus seems to use the entire volume (integro instrumento) he has none the less laid violent hands on the truth only with a more cunning mind and skill than Marcion. Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject-matter. Valentinus, however, abstained from such excision, because he did not invent Scriptures to square with his own subject-matter, but adapted his matter to the Scriptures;5

Irenaeus, too, struggled with the issues presented by these various movements. Some of this struggle ushered in the concept of “apostolic succession” and the traditions attendant to this. But most important to this investigation is the resulting concern in patristic writing for promulgation of a proper listing of authoritative books. The rise of heresy gave impetus and strength to the examination of the books that were “read in church” (an idiom equivalent to saying “canonical”) or which “defiled the hands” (a Jewish concept referring to the holiness of the scrolls or codices that contained the Scriptures). At this time there were other books that were at times included in the New Testament canon, such as the letter of Clement, the Didache (also called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, What of these books? The process of collation and collection was underway, just as in the Old Testament, and historical circumstances hurried the process toward its completion.

Early Signs of Canon Process

Lodovico Antonio Muratori published the text of a canon list, which was probably written in the late second century, in 1740. Known today as “the Muratorian Fragment”, this list gives us one of the earliest examples of this kind of literature from a Christian context.

The Muratorian fragment dates from just a little after the time of Marcion, and may give us the viewpoint of the canon from the vicinity of Rome itself. It is interesting to note that this canon list is almost identical (with the possible exception of 1 Peter) to the canon of books accepted as authoritative by Irenaeus, a contemporary of this listing.

Though the list is rather lengthy, I give it in full as it is contained in F. F. Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture for the sake of

The third book of the gospel: according to Luke.
After the ascension of Christ, Luke the physician, whom Paul had taken along with him as a legal expert, wrote {the record} down in his own name in accordance with {Paul’s} opinion. He himself, however, never saw the Lord in the flesh and therefore, as far as he could follow {the course of events}, began to tell it from the nativity of John. The fourth gospel is by John, one of the disciples.
When his fellow-disciples and bishops encouraged him, John said, ‘Fast along with me three days from today, and whatever may be revealed to each, let us relate it one to another.’ The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John in his own name should write down everything and that they should all revise it. Therefore, although different beginnings are taught for the various books of the gospel, it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since in all of them everything has been declared by one primary Spirit, concerning his nativity, passion and resurrection, his association with his disciples, which is past; his second resplendent in royal power, his coming again. It is no wonder, then, that John should so constantly present the separate details
in his letters also, saying of himself: ’What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and our hands have handled, these things have we written.’ For in this way he claims to be not only a spectator but a hearer, and also a writer in order of the wonderful facts about our Lord.
The Acts of all the apostles have been written in one book. Addressing the most excellent Theophilus, Luke includes one by one the things which were done in his own presence, as he shows plainly by omitting the passion of Peter and also Paul’s departure when he was setting out from the City for Spain.
As for the letters of Paul, they themselves show those who wish to understand from which place and for which cause they were directed. First of all {he wrote} to the Corinthians forbidding schisms, and heresies; then to the Galatians {forbidding} circumcision; to the Romans he wrote at greater length about the order of the scriptures and also insisting that Christ was their primary theme. It is necessary for us to give an argued account of all these, since the blessed apostle Paul himself, following the order of his predecessor John, but not naming him, writes to seven churches in the following order: first to the Corinthians, second to the Ephesians, third to the Philippians, fourth to the Colossians, fifth to the Galatians, sixth to the Thessalonians, seventh to the Romans. But although
{the message} is repeated to the Corinthians and Thessalonians by way of reproof, yet one church is recognized as diffused throughout the whole world. For John also, while he writes to seven churches in the Apocalypse, yet speaks to all. Moreover {Paul writes} one {letter} to Philemon, one to Titus and two to Timothy in love and affection; but they have been hallowed for the honour of the catholic church in the regulation of ecclesiastical discipline.
There is said to be another letter in Paul’s name to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrines, {both} forged in accordance with Marcion’s heresy, and many others which cannot be received into the catholic church, since it is not fitting that poison should be mixed with honey.
But the letter of Jude and the two superscribed with the name of John are accepted in the catholic {church}; Wisdom also, written by Solomon’s friends in his honour. The Apocalypse of John we also receive, and that of Peter, [Bettenson gives a probable emendation here as, “the one epistle only of Peter, a second is extant which, etc.”]6 which some of our people will not have to be read in church. But the Shepherd was written by Hermas in the city of Rome quite recently, in our own times, when his brother Pius occupied the bishop’s chair in the church of the city of Rome; and therefore it may be read indeed, but cannot be given out to the people in church either among the prophets, since their number is complete, or among the apostles at the end of the times.
But none of the writings of Arsinuous or Valentinus or Miltiades do we receive at all. They have also composed a new book of psalms for Marcion; {these we reject} together with Basilides {and} the Asian founder of the Cataphrygians…7

Numerous comments could be profitably made on the contents of the Muratorian fragment. There are some obvious historical errors – Paul didn’t follow John (there was a fascination with numerology, there seems, for Cyprian over a century later would make a similar comment concerning the “seven” letters of Paul8) nor was Luke present for all the events in the Acts, either. But aside from these idiosyncrasies, the fragment gives us a good picture of one stage, in one location, of the canon process. It is evident that Matthew and Mark preceded the mention of Luke (we are dealing with a “fragment”), hence we have the four gospels, Acts, the 13 Pauline letters, Jude, 1 and 2 John and the Revelation, leaving Hebrews, and possibly both letters of Peter (though the probable emendation would include 1 Peter and list 2
Peter as contested) as well as James outside the list. Also included in the accepted books at this time and at this place were Wisdom (very unusual to find an Old Testament apocryphal book in a New Testament listing like this) and “The Apocalypse of Peter” depending on the text. The Shepherd of Hermas is mentioned, but placed on a secondary position. Other works are pointedly excluded from the canon list.

From here it we will briefly examine the writings of some of the Fathers of this period, gleaning if we can a listing of the books which to the best of our ability we can discover were held by that man to be authoritative. Each of these Fathers will give us a “slice” of the canon process, limited to that time, and that place. It is quickly admitted that such a survey, if taken in-depth, could take up far more room than is here available; hence, citations will be kept short and to the point.


Irenaeus of Lyons, bishop of Gaul, wrote such works as Against Heresies in which he defended the Christian faith against those who would destroy its teachings. In Against Heresies 1.20.19 he charges the heretics with attempting to persuade people “by garbling passages of Scripture”, seemingly referring to a body of works containing more than just the Old Testament. Irenaeus believed that the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament was providentially inspired (Ag. Her. 3.21.2)10 which would tell us something of his Old Testament canon, but little about the New. Irenaeus used the term “two testaments” as well – the first that we know of.11 He states that both are “from the same God” which seems to be a direct polemic against those who would divide the Scriptures, attributing the Old to one god, and the New to another (see above). He, like others, struggled with the reason for having four gospels, rather than just one, and came up with a rather intriguing spiritual explanation in Against Heresies 3.11.7-812 As was mentioned above, Irenaeus’ canon of Scripture, as we can glean from his writings, is nearly identical with the Muratorian list, with the inclusion of 1 Peter being definite for Irenaeus (and with no way of determining his view of the Apocalypse of Peter).


The great early Father Tertullian, writing about 196-212, also used the terms “testaments” to distinguish the Old and the New, In Against Marcion 4.1 he writes,

To encourage a belief of this Gospel he [Marcion] has actually devised for it a sort of dower, in a work composed
of contrary statements set in opposition, thence entitled Antitheses, and compiled with a view to such a severance of the law from the gospel as should divide the Deity into two, nay, diverse, gods – one for each Instrument, or Testament as it is more usual to call it;13

He elsewhere uses the phrases “Old Testament” and “New Testament”.14 His list of authoritative books, compiled from his writings (he gives no actual list per se), had all the current New Testament books with the exception of James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John – and even these are excluded only on the basis of silence, not on a direct statement by Tertullian himself. When one considers the considerable overlap of 2 Peter and Jude, and the shortness of 2 & 3 John, we are very close to being able to say that Tertullian operated with a New Testament canon very close to our own. He does state that Hebrews had not come down to him as canonical, but he felt it was worthy of the apostles, and compared it with the popular Shepherd of Hermas (though, after Tertullian became a Montanist, he felt that the Shepherd’s ethical standards were far too low).


Clement of Alexandria (150-215) gives us insight into the viewpoint from Alexandria, Egypt, where he headed up the famous catechetical school of Alexandria. According to Eusebius, Clement listed all four gospels as authoritative.15 Also included in Clement’s canon would be Acts, the Pauline epistles, the “catholic” epistles (the exact extent of this is uncertain) and the Revelation.16 It is interesting to note that Clement includes Hebrews in Paul’s epistles (a common early notion, reflected also in the fact that such early manuscripts as P46 include Hebrews right after Romans). According to Clement, Paul wrote Hebrews in Hebrew, and Luke translated it into Greek.17 This is a rather nice way of handling the obvious stylistic differences between Hebrews and the Pauline epistles. Clement’s successor, however, is probably right when he said that only God knows who wrote Hebrews.18


The name of Clement’s successor was Origen. In his work De Principiis 4.119 he writes, “from that which is called the Old Testament, and that which is styled the New.” The two-fold distinction is clearly a part of his thinking. Though Origen’s contribution to Old Testament canonical studies is enormous (and entertaining), it is his view of the New Testament that is under consideration here. Eusebius seems to follow Origen’s trifold designations for the books,20 giving the categories as “undisputed,” “disputed” and “false”. In the “undisputed” category Origen lists the four Gospels, Acts, the Pauline epistles (not including Hebrews), 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation. He lists as disputed Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, James, and Jude. Also included in the “disputed” category is the Didache, Hermas, and the Letter of Barnabas. We need not go into what he listed as “false.” This is also the listing given by Eusebius as referenced above.


Hippolytus (170-235), in his commentary on Daniel (4.49)21 gives reference to a body of Scripture described by the phrase, “the prophets, the Lord, and the apostles”. According to F. F. Bruce, Hippolytus knows the same canon as Irenaeus, except that he knows Hebrews, quotes James, and 2 Peter. He also quotes from Jude and the Apocalypse.


Cyprian of Carthage, writing about 246-258, seems to equate the authority of the Old and New Testaments in On the Lapsed 7 22 where he writes,

Have not prophets aforetime, and subsequently apostles, told of these things? Have not they, full of the Holy
Spirit, predicted the afflictions of the righteous…Does not the sacred Scripture, which ever arms our faith and
strengthens us with a voice from heaven…say..?

Cyprian likens the four Gospels to the four rivers that watered Eden.23 He also accepted Acts, Paul’s letters to the “seven churches” (as cited above), Timothy and Titus,24 along with 1 Peter, 1 John, and the Apocalypse.25

From the above statements it can be seen that prior to the Council of Nicea, there was a clear movement toward what we consider to be the modern New Testament canon. Though some books were less widely accepted than others, the vast majority of the material that comprises the 27 books was already in place and functioning as canon Scripture. One other way of looking at the subject, though not as explicit as the Fathers, is the great uncial texts – what did these contain?

The Uncials

When one refers to the “great uncial texts” one is normally referring to three – Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus. The first two are from the fourth century, the third from the fifth. Below are the lists of the New Testament contents of these uncials. (Lacunae are ignored).

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon; Acts; James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation; Letter of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; Acts; James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude; Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews. (According to Bruce, the end of the codex has been lost, and it is quite probable that 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation were originally a part of the work).
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; Acts; James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude; Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon; Revelation; 1 Clement, 2 Clement.

As can be seen, aside from the inclusion of 1 and 2 Clement in Alexandrinus, and Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas in Sinaiticus (which does not necessarily indicate that the author gave full canonical authority to these books – binding “edifying” books with canon Scripture was not unusual), the contents of these manuscripts corresponds nearly perfectly with the current canon of the New Testament, though, of course, the order of books is quite different.

Formalization of Canon Process

After the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, we see a fairly quick move to formalize the New Testament canon, a move that results in just such a formalized recognition of the canon by the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).

The great defender of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius, also made an important contribution to the discussion of the canon process. As a part of the duties of the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius had to send out a letter each year to inform all other bishops of the date of Easter. This “Festal Letter” also included some devotional thoughts as well. Athanasius’ 39th letter, for the year 367, included a complete listing of the canon, for Athanasius explained, “having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine.”26 His list is as follows:

These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.
“…prior to the Council of Nicea…the vast majority of the material that comprises the 27 books was already in place…”

Cyril of Jerusalem gave the same list as Athanasius with , the exception of Revelation.27 Gregory of Nazianus produced a poetic way of remembering the New Testament books, found in Hymn 28:

Now enumerate those of the new mystery:
Matthew wrote the wonderful
works of Christ for the Hebrews,
Mark in Italy, Luke in Achaia.
John, who visited heaven, was a great herald to all,
Then come the Acts of the wise apostles,
and Paul’s fourteen epistles,
and seven catholic epistles, of which James’ is one,
two by Peter, three by John again,
and Jude’s is the seventh. There you have them all.
Any outside of these is not among the genuine writings.

At nearly the same time as this, Amphilochius of Iconium was working on a similar lyric, which follows:

It is time for me to state the books of the New Testament.
Receive only four evangelists:
Matthew, then Mark, to whom Luke as third
count in addition, and John, in time
the fourth, but first in the sublimity of his doctrines,
for rightly do I call him the son of thunder
who sounded forth most loudly with the word of God.
Receive also Luke’s second book,
that of the Acts of the universal apostles.
Next add the ‘chosen vessel,’
the herald to the Gentiles, the apostle
Paul, who wrote in wisdom to the churches
twice seven books; to the Romans one,
to which must be added two to the Corinthians
that to the Galatians, that to the Ephesians, after them
that in Philippi; then to one written
to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians,
two to Timothy, and to Titus and Philemon
one each, and one to the Hebrews.
But some say the epistle to the Hebrews is spurious;
they say not well, for its grace is genuine.
So be it. What remains? Of the catholic epistles
some say there are seven, others that three only
are to be received; one of James,
one of Peter and one of John.
Some receive the three of John
and in addition to them the two
of Peter, with Jude’s as the seventh.
The Revelation of John, again
some include, but the majority
say is spurious. This is the most unerring
canon of the divinely inspired scriptures.29

It is to be noted that in both of these lists the Revelation is either left out or considered by the “majority” to be spurious. Given Athanasius’ easy acceptance of the book, it is clear that there was still a divided opinion on it. John Chrysostom, too, seemed to reject the Revelation, and he does not seem to quote from the 4 “controverted” catholic epistles, either.30

Rufinus, the translator of Origen into Latin, and the foe of Jerome later in life, gave the canon exactly as it is today, and added, “These are the books which the Fathers have comprised within the Canon, and from which they would have us deduce the proofs of our faith.”31 Here again the concepts of authority and canon are seen to go hand in hand.

The conflict between the great Fathers Augustine and Jerome in regards to the canon is well known. But, the disagreement was based in Jerome’s rejection of the Apocryphal books, and Augustine’s acceptance of the same. As to the New Testament canon, they were in complete agreement. Jerome’s list is much more interesting and flowery than Augustine’s, giving all sorts of intriguing commentary along the way.32 Augustine’s is to the point, and follows that same order as the modern English canon, with the exception of Acts, which for some reason is placed right before Revelation.33

Formalization took place first at the Council of Hippo in 393. The proceedings of this council are not extant, but its canon list was repeated as “Canon 47” of the Third Council of Carthage in 397. The first of these was primarily a local council, overseen by Augustine. Carthage was a provincial council. The same canon is repeated in the sixth council of Carthage in 419, and is found to be identical, even in order, with the current English New Testament canon.34

So many more sources could be examined that to do so would require much more of the book than a paper – such items as the Clermont list of the Cheltenham list, or the writings of fifty more Fathers could be consulted with some advantage. But, it is hoped that the above review is sufficiently broad to allow some more general comments to be made on the working out of the canon process in history.

Thoughts in Retrospect

Having looked at the evidence provided by various Fathers from all corners of the Empire (and numerous theological streams of tradition), as well as the evidence of such things as the Muratorian fragment, what thoughts stand out?

Some of the more obvious items sometimes get lost in the shuffle of trying to piece together the exact sequence of events leading to the modern canon. We sometimes get so caught up in trying to figure out, for example, if the rejection of Revelation was primarily a geographical thing (accepted in the West, rejected in the East – but with exceptions) that some rather important facts get lost. One that seems clear is the fact that none of the Fathers even had the slightest idea that they were, in some way, “giving” authority to the Scriptures by accepting them as genuine or inspired. There is no discussion of the Church having some kind of ability to “create canonical authority.” Rather, the Fathers attempt to base their arguments upon those very Scriptures, showing clearly their recognition of the inherent (not contingent or
transferred) authority of those writings.

Can we try and outline the criteria for canonization as found in the early Fathers? Obviously such an exercise is painting with a broad brush, but Bruce’s categories provide a fair set into which we can work the various positions taken by the Church’s leaders during those all-important formative years. With some changes, the following outline is taken from his work on the canon.35

Apostolic Authority. Important in the minds of the believers was the question of apostolic authority. The early church looked back upon the apostolic age as being special – graced with an unusual movement of God’s Spirit and the attendant miraculous gifts. The Apostles of the Lord were called part of the foundation of the church by Paul himself (Ephesians 5:20) and hence their writings were endowed with authority due to their close proximity to the Lord Himself. One might call the apostle’s authority somewhat derivative, as it was given to them by Jesus Christ, the ultimate source of all authority in the Church. But it was not just the Apostles who had this authority, for “apostolic” could also be used to describe Luke and Mark, fellows of the Apostles, but not necessarily eye-witnesses.

Antiquity. Recent writings were not considered to be as authoritative. See, for example, the mention of the recent date of the Shepherd of Hermas in the Muratorian fragment, cited above. The church looked back upon the Apostolic age as being past – hence, the books that wished to claim that authority had to be from that time period. Hence, antiquity became an issue.

Orthodoxy. What did the book say? Was it consistent with itself? Is it consistent with the rest of revealed Scripture? Did it follow the “tradition” of the Apostles as held by the Church? These questions were high on the list of importance for many.

Inspiration. Does the book speak with authority? Does it proclaim the Gospel of Christ? Does it add to what we know of Jesus, God,
salvation, the Church? Does the Holy Spirit speak in its pages?

Catholicity. Here is, in this writer’s opinion, the most important aspect. Was the book the common property of believers? What was
the verdict of the Church as a whole? It seems vital to note that much of the canon process took place before strong, overpowering
ecclesiastical leaders came on the scene. During the first three centuries of the church the leaders still seemed in contact with and in communion or fellowship with the regular layperson in the congregation. Though the clergy/laity split is indeed taking place at this time, there is still the kind of community that allows the Church to act as a corporate body. It is during this time that the vast majority of the material of the New Testament is made canonical, never again to be questioned. When one thinks of the disputed books, they are, percentage wise, nowhere near half or even a quarter of the entire New Testament. Hence, as the paradigm of the Old Testament indicated, it is here that God could work with His people – individual believers banded together in corporate worship and fellowship, even at this time under threat of
persecution or even death – and there God could find sensitive men and women who could recognize the unmistakable stamp of the Spirit’s authorship. We may only see the marks of this silent process in the leaders’ writings – we have little of the layperson’s perspective available to us in written form. But it seems evident that catholicity – acceptance by the people of God – is the operative factor in determining the New Testament canon.

Summary and Conclusions

The canon process of the New Testament is vital to the Protestant understanding of Biblical authority. It is possible to demonstrate the fact of the authoritative statements of Jesus Christ in regards to the inspiration and nature of the Old Testament, and this authority can be deduced for the extent of the Old Testament canon as well. The process as revealed in the writings of the Patristic period follows closely in the pattern laid down by the Old Testament. Hence, it seems safe to assert the authority of the New Testament canon on the basis of the similar process through which it, like the Old Testament canon, passed.

The New Testament provides foundations within itself for the concept of a canon of Scripture. After the Apostolic age historical movements, such as those led by Marcion, Valentinus, and Montanus gave added impetus to the process of canonization, as the Church felt keenly the need for an authority with which to combat these teachings. Early manuscripts, such as the Muratorian fragment, and the writings of early Fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian,Clement and Origen, give us a good glimpse of the process of canon in the third century. From this we can see that the majority of the New Testament, though not immediately so styled, is coming into view. Certain “extra” books still enjoy popularity and certain of the canonical books are disputed by some.

The fourth century brings even further clarity to the issue in the writings of Athanasius and Cyril, and with the advent of Augustine and Jerome the issue becomes, for the time being, settled. The Councils of Hippo and Carthage finish the process with an “official” canon list.

From this we can see that certain criteria were used by the early Church to engage in the task of determining the canon. It is a task that, if the promises of the Scripture themselves have any meaning, was guided by the providential hand of God. Though we do not see miraculous intervention from on high, we do see God’s working even in what might seem “mysterious” ways (i.e., through men such as Marcion or Montanus) to guide and direct His Church toward the eventual goal of recognition of His complete Word. This is not, as has been asserted, a process of giving authority to men’s writings – the Fathers were clearly aware that they were deriving their authority, and had none to give away! Rather, it was a process of recognition, of seeking the Spirit’s mind and will. It was not done hurriedly. It was not done carelessly. It took time. We can, and should be, very thankful for this. We should be pleased that such works as Revelation were so closely scrutinized before eventually being accepted. This simply shows the respect and awe with which the early believers were struck. We are the benefactors of their work. Let us be worthy of such a great gift.

1. David G. Dunbar, “The Biblical Canon” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1986), pg. 301.
2. As found in The Works of Josephus translated by William Whiston, (Lynn, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1982), pg. 609.
3. Isidore Epstein, editor, The Babylonian Talmud, (London: The Soncino Press, 1935), Order Nezikim, Vol. 3:46.
4. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1943), pg. 27.
5. Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 38 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. 10 Volumes. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1981), 3:262.
6. Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Religion, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), pg. 29.
7. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, (Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pgs. 159-161.
8. Cyprian, Testimonies 1.20 in Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:513.
9. Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:344.
10. Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:451-452.
11. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.32.1 in Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:505.
12. Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:428.
13. Ante-Nicene Fathers 3:345.
14. Tertullian, Against Praxeas 15 in Ante-Nicene Fathers 3:610.
15. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1955), 6.14.5-7, pg. 234.
16. Clement, Stromata 6.13 in Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:504.
17. Eusebius 6.14.2f, pgs. 233-234.
18. Ibid., 6.25.14, pg. 247
19. Ante-Nicene Fathers 4:349.
20. Eusebius 3.25, pg. 110.
21. As cited by Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, pg. 178.
22. Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:439.
23. Cyprian, Epistle 72.10 in Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:382.
24. Cyprian, Epistle 53.21 in Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:346.
25. Cyprian, Epistle 62.12 in Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:361-362.
26. Athanasius, Festal Letter of 367 in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II. 14 Volumes. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1982), 4:551ff.
27. Cyril, Catechetical Lecture 4.36 in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers II 7:27f.
28. As cited in Bruce, The Canon of Scripture pgs. 211-212.
29. Ibid., pgs. 212-213.
30. Ibid., pg. 214.
31. Rufinus, On the Creed 37, in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers II 3:557-558.
32. Jerome, Epistle 53.9, in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers II 6:101-102.
33. Augustine, On Christian Learning in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Series I 14 Volumes. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1983), 2:538-539.
34. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers II 14:453-454.
35. Bruce, Canon of Scripture, pgs. 255-269.
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