The Formation of the New Testament Canon
Returning to our topic regarding the formation of the Canon, we turn from a focus on the Old Testament to that of the New. It was generally recognized among the Jews of Jesus day and currently among the Protestant and Evangelical Christians of today that the authoritative section of the Canon known to us as the Old Testament was finished in the fifth century B.C. with the book from the prophet Malachi. Four hundred years after Malachi, God once again raised up Apostles and those associated with the Apostles to communicate further progressive revelation about God’s greatest form of communication, the Word Himself (Heb 1:1-4; John 1:1-18). What we have come to call the New Testament, thanks to the Church Father, Tertullian, has been divided predominantly into four sections: the gospels, history, epistles (Pauline and General), and prophecy. Unlike the millennia it took to create the Old Testament, the New Testament was written over a period of approximately fifty years. Another difference regarding the writers for the New Testament, as compared with that of the Old, relates to the geographic orientation of the authors, which is far wider for those of the New Testament, encompassing most of the known civilized world in the Roman Empire.
One might wonder about the process of recognition for those New Testament works that God determined to be authoritatively inspired. This process was conducted through about five phases in the History of the Church. In the first phase, the works themselves were created, starting with books like 1 Thessalonians or possibly even James (which were written close to A.D. 50) and ending approximately in A.D. 95 with John’s apocalyptic work of Revelation. During the second phase which occurred from A.D. 96-150, there was a growing desire among those within the Church for these authoritative works to be placed in a collection. Amazingly, without much consultation, Christian assemblies around the empire circulated and recognized as authoritative the majority of the works that we perceive by the title “New Testament.” In the third phase of this process, the church began to compile these books into a collection, as a standardized record of formally authoritative works. It was during this phase that a compilation called the Muratorian Canon was constructed which contained all the New Testament books except James, Hebrews, and 1 and 2 Peter. During the fourth phase, which occurred during the third century, the Church’s desire for a recognized Canon continued. It was prior to and during this phase that various heresies arose, such as Marcionism, which had its own Canon that differed from the correct or orthodox Canon. Further, many works were formed from other heretical groups like the Gnostics that looked like books from the Bible but in all actuality were frauds. Many of these heretical groups even slapped the name of a known apostle like Thomas on their works so as to deceive the masses into thinking their books were legitimate. The formation of these heretical works and illegitimate lists of canonical books propelled the church to clearly define what it actually recognized as authoritatively inspired by God. Finally, it was during the fifth phase of this process and within the fourth century, after two persecutions which saw many copies of New Testament works destroyed, that Christians felt once and for all that a universally recognized set of books should be agreed upon.
In this process of discussion, there were a few books that were disputed by some called Antilegomena such as Hebrews, a book in which the author was anonymous; James, a book that confused people about the relation of faith and works; 2 Peter, a book in which the Apostle Peter used a different style of writing than in his first epistle; 2 and 3 John which were disputed because of their limited circulation and private nature; Jude, which was disputed because he referenced a couple of works that Believers knew were not authoritative in and of themselves; and Revelation, which some questioned simply because of its teaching on the millennium. However, these disputes did not last long, and the entire set of twenty-seven books was universally accepted and recognized by the church as the authoritative written word of God by the middle of the fourth century.
The criteria that was usually associated with evaluating these books as authoritative revolved around questions like “Is this work inspired?” If it was, it would be consistent doctrinally with that of the Old Testament and the teachings of Christ and His Apostles. “Does this book have Apostolic authority?” This means that the book was written either by an Apostle or someone closely associated with an Apostle like Luke to Paul. It was Jesus Who was sent by the Father, and Who in turn trained the Apostles and then sent them out with His message (John 20:21). “Was this work written during the Apostolic era?” Writings that were written after the Apostles died were not and could not be included in the Canon. “Does the church universally accept these books as authoritative?” There was an uncanny sense in the early church of what was and what was not genuinely inspired. Interestingly enough, both the Apostle Paul and Peter make citations which reveal that they perceived certain New Testament books on par with the authority of Old Testament Scripture (2 Pet 3:16; 1 Tim 5:18).
Officially, it was in A.D. 367 that Athanasius circulated his Festal Letter for Easter in which the Church revealed a fully agreed upon set of recognized Canonical works for both the Old and the New Testament. Until next time, this is Pastor Daniel writing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit.”