How the New Testament Canon Arose


© Can Stock Photo Inc. / janaka

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / janaka

In this piece, I largely follow a presentation given by Dr. Danial Wallace*, but I add in some additional information about the early church to round out the information. Dr. Wallace is the Senior Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Dr. Wallace underscores the fact that the early church was concerned about the ties of writings to the apostles and associates of the apostles. The original gospels, however, were anonymous; that is they did not have internal references to who wrote them. They were only given names to distinguish them from each other externally, and this tradition went all the way back. The fact that the early church was so concerned with authorship, but universally accepted and used the four canonical gospels, suggests that there were no authorship concerns about them. This point will become more important below.

How the Gospels and other documents that have come to comprise the New Testament became recognized as scripture and other documents did not, is the subject of this piece.

The four canonical gospels were all written and circulating in the 1st century, in the generation following Christ’s death. Mark was the first gospel written. There is some evidence that Mark got his gospel from Peter, but no one called it the gospel according to Peter. John, the last of the gospels written, was completed about 85 AD. John, himself, lived into the 2nd century.

It was not until the second century that we begin to see gospels with the names of the writers stated in them. (Thomas, Judas, Peter, etc.) This is because the early church did not embrace writings that did not have some tie to the apostles or the associates of the apostles. If the early church at the time did not think a writing was done by an apostle or associate of an apostle, the writing was not embraced as scriptural. More on this to come.

In addition to authorship, the early gospels had an intrinsic authority to them that was recognized by the church. The other books seeking acceptance did not have that intrinsic authority. This also explains why, if someone was writing a book a hundred years after Jesus died, the writers would seek to add authority by ascribing them to an apostle or associate of an apostle. They were hoping to give it authority it did not intrinsically have.

The Apocryphal gospels include the gospels of Thomas, Mary, Phillip, Judas, Peter, Bartholomew, as well as the Acts of Peter, Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans, 3rd Corinthians and others. Many of these works were “orthodox”, meaning that they were harmonious with the other gospels and conformed to what the church has believed from the beginning. They still were not considered scripture and did not become part of the NT canon.

The criterion of canonicity, according to Wallace is:

  1. Written by an apostle or associate of an apostle – the “criterion of antiquity”.
  2. Orthodoxy – does it conform to what we see in the other books as to what was orthodox, or true doctrine. This goes back to the words of Jesus, which was the standard for what the early church considered true doctrine.
  3. Catholicity – not Roman Catholicity, but that the books were accepted by all the churches.

The early church began in Jerusalem and Judea following Christ’s death and expanded out from there. The Christians separated themselves from their Jewish brethren such that, when Roman armies carried out the siege against Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Christians had removed themselves to the hills and regions outside of Jerusalem and Judea.

Christianity spread rapidly through the geography of the Roman Empire, Asia Minor and Syria and extended further east into the land of the former Asseryian and Persian empires as well as into Africa. Justin Martyr wrote about 150 AD that “the eucharist of the bread and cup… were offered by Christians in all places throughout the world…. whether among barbarians or Greeks, or by whatever name they may be called, of those who live in wagons or are called nomads or of herdsmen living in tents….” (Ch 41 of Dialogus cum Tryhone (MSG, 6:676) quoted in Biblehub)

The early church was interconnected, but not centralized at this time. According to Dr. Wallace, they did not create the canon; they “discovered the canon”. The Gospels and letters that the early church recognized as scriptural were the documents that met the criteria, not the least of which was they conformed to the teaching and life of Christ that people knew.

Note that the Roman Catholics define the canon as an “authoritative list of books”; while the Protestants say it is a “list of authoritative books”. An authoritative list needs some higher authority granting the list its authority. One the other hand, a list of authoritative books is a collection of books that have recognized and intrinsic authority. If you look at all the early church councils, not one of them purported to list out what is scripture. None of them said “these are the books of the New Testament”.

There is a problem with the Roman Catholic definition (an authoritative list). It requires an authority higher than the scriptures. (Of course, the Roman Catholic church says it is the authority.) The authority that establishes the scriptures, however, is Jesus, Himself. “Jesus is the canon,” says Wallace. He is the standard that the New Testament conforms to. The books of the New Testament are the ones that harmonize with what Jesus said and with his life that people who followed him could recognize.

What Jesus said in the 1st Century was known to the people who followed Him, not just the disciples, but all the followers and those who made up the early church. The first followers of Jesus, who knew what Jesus said (because they were there when He said it) were the ones who first identified what was authoritative and authentic because they were able to compare writings to what was said and to his life. They also, likely, knew exactly where the writings came from.

William Barclay, the Edinboro scholar, said that the NT books were not the sort that people could determine what belonged in the NT; they were the sort that people could not keep out. They have intrinsic authority to them, and people recognized that authority. They ring true. They bear witness to the Jesus that people knew and to what He demonstrated and what He said.

How the ancients viewed forgeries is also instructive. If they discovered that a book was not written by the person to whom it was attributed, they always disregarded it, even if it conformed to accepted doctrine. The content did not trump the fact that it was wrongly attributed. The fact that it was wrongly attributed cast suspicion on it.

As an example, the Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans was a grouping of portions of four different letters that Paul wrote. It is completely orthodox. It contains quotations from four of Paul’s letters. But it was not written by Paul so it was not considered scripture. Another example is 3rd Corinthians, written by a man who loved the apostle Paul and who identified Paul as the author of it. Because Paul did not write the letter, the man was kicked out of the church, and the letter was considered not scripture.

The Epistle of Barnabas is largely orthodox, but no one thought it was actually written by Barnabas. A 2nd Century list of scripture says that Barnabas is a good book to read, but it is not scripture “because it was written in our time.” Thus, it was not only the authenticity of authorship, but the time period that mattered to the early church. Writings in the 2nd Century were too late.

When people claim that there are many “lost gospels”, and the early church suppressed them, that is not the case. There is a difference between 1st century documents and 2nd century documents. The 1st century documents are written by the apostles or their associates. The 2nd century documents were not.

A couple of other books were apparently orthodox but were not recognized by the early church as scripture. We do not even have them any more. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, is referenced in other places, but we do not have a copy of it. Even seemingly orthodox writings were discarded by the early church, if they were considered forgeries because the fact of the forgery was consider a lie.

Dr. Earl Ellis wrote about this characteristic. Whether a pseudo gospel or letter was orthodox or heretical, it did not matter; they were regarded as forgeries. The early church did not consider any forgery benign. The claim that Peter did not write 2nd Peter or that Paul did not write Ephesians or the pastoral epistles is only a modern invention. The early church’s treatment of forgeries, even benign forgeries, strongly suggests that the writings were considered authentic.

How these pseudo writings view Christ is telling. The infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas) says:

“When a boy accidentally ran into the boy Jesus, Jesus declared, ‘You shall not go further on your way’, and the child immediately fell down and died.”

“Some of the villagers complained to Joseph, asking him to take his family and leave. ‘Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village, or else teach him to bless and not to curse, for he is slaying our children.'”

The Arabic Infancy Gospel was written in the 5th or 6th Century. Mohammad seems to have read this writing and to have been influenced by it. In fact,  he seems to have been more aware of the apocryphal gospels than the actual gospels, and his understanding of the NT seems to be influenced by his knowledge of the apocryphal writings.

The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 in Egypt along with other books. It says that it was written by Thomas Dydemus, meaning Thomas the Twin. There was a tradition that arose in the 2nd Century that Thomas was Jesus’ twin. Ascribing this gospel to Thomas, therefore, might give it some sense of authority.

In the Gospel of Thomas, there is no narrative. Not one city or place is mentioned. The resurrection is not mentioned. There is no mention of miracles. It is a “talking head gospel”. At the end is this discussion between Peter and Mary Magdelene:

“Simone Peter said to them [the apostles], “Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “Look, I shall lead her so that I will make her male in order that she also may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (114)

People who assert that the Gospel of Thomas should be part of the canon (some say replacing John) will say that this passage is not authentic. The problem with that is we only have one copy of the Gospel of Thomas, and this passage is in there. It clearly deviates from the New Testament canon.

The Gospel of Thomas is not technically Gnostic. Gnosticism is the idea that salvation come by way of knowledge; the material world is evil; and the spirit world is good. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, is thoroughly gnostic. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas to betray him and that Judas will be a hero because he will set Jesus free from the shell in which he was stuck. In other words, it says that Judas would set Jesus free from the material realm.

The problems with the Apocryphal gospels is that they were late, sometimes centuries (plural) later than the NT writings. They were 2nd century documents or later. Although popular with the masses, church leaders condemned them. They usually contained docetic or Gnostic ideas about Jesus (the idea of separation of the material world from the spirit world).

The docetic idea was that Jesus only appeared to be human, but he really was only divine. One of the struggles of the 2nd Century church was not with the deity of Christ. That was assumed from the beginning. The humanity of Christ was what they wrestled with.

In the Acts of John, one text reads as follows:

“John says, ‘Sometimes when I meant to touch him [Jesus], I met with a material and solid body, but other times when I felt his substance immterial and incorporial as if it had not existed at all…. And I often wished as walked with him, to see his footprint,whether it appeared on the ground (for I saw him as it were raised up from the earth), and I never saw it.”

This is not like the canonical gospels. It is like the Gospel of Peter that has Jesus coming out of the tomb, with his head above the clouds, with two angels walking besides him who are also hundreds of feet tall.
In the Acts of Paul, it reads as follows:

“Paul is facing down the gaping jaw of a large lion in the Ephesian amphitheater. Unshaken, Paul approached the beast, and he simply reminds the creature that he had baptized the lion (after the uttered his confession of faith, of course) sometime before! The lion then helps Paul to escape.”

When you read the Apocryphal gospels, you can see that they are embellished, loony and bizarre. When reading the New Testament, you see that it is really understated and matter of factual. When miracles are described, there is detail, but no embellishment with grandiose language. The canonical New Testament writings are not given to bizarre embellishments.

The canonical gospels and most of the rest of what we now have as the New Testament were accepted by the very early church. Twenty of the 27 books were accepted officially by the 2nd Century, and the other seven were accepted over time. They accepted books because of their apostolic connections, consistency with what Jesus taught and universal acceptance throughout the scattered church. All forgeries were rejected, even if they were orthodox with what Jesus taught. The ancient church’s criteria should guide the Church today.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Dr. Wallace started the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, a non-profit, tax exempt, 501(c)(3) organization in 2002. The primary purpose of the organization is to preserve the NT documents by digitizing all handwritten manuscripts in existence. There are 2.6 million pages of 5838 known NT manuscripts. CSNTN has discovered 11 manuscripts that were previously not indexed anywhere,

As of November 2013, CSNTN had digitized over 400 manuscripts and 250,000 pages. The printed NT is based on handwritten manuscripts. If all of the printed text were completely wiped out, we could rely on the handwritten manuscripts to reproduce the NT.


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6 Comments on “How the New Testament Canon Arose”

  1. vivator Says:

    Examining Dr. Wallace criteria:
    1. The book must be written by apostle or his associate. Well how do we know? All four canonical Gospels and other NT books are anonymous. If their authorship is based on testimony of early Christians, isn’t that an authority outside NT?
    2. Orthodoxy: How do you define orthodoxy in the first place? If it is defined from the NT then to use that definition to determine which books belong to NT is a circular argument. If orthodoxy is defined by somebody outside NT then whoever they are, must have the authority to define orthodoxy and consequently to determine which books belong to NT as well. You see that it always goes back to authority outside NT to determine which books belong to NT!
    3. Catholicity: Out of 27 books only 20 meet catholicity criteria in the first three centuries. The other seven books (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, Hebrews and Revelation) were only accepted in 367 AD.

    According to Dr. Wallace the early church discovered, not created the canon. If that is the case then the canon of NT must exist before the establishment of the church. For example we say Columbus discovered America or Isaac Newton discovered Law of Gravity. What happened here is the opposite – the church was born before any of NT books was written, let alone be canonized! Dr. Wallace cannot use the verb “to discover” here, from English grammar point of view.

    Your explanation on the difference of “authoritative list of books” and “list of authoritative books” makes no sense. In both terminologies you need higher authority to determine which books belong to NT. The list did not simply dropped from the sky to be discovered. Dr. Wallace wrote that Jesus is the canon and books of the New Testament are the ones that harmonize with what Jesus said and with his life. But we know what Jesus said from Gospels, which implies you must first determine which books belong to NT. There is no evidence that the first followers of Jesus or His disciples were the ones who identified those 27 books. If they did, then from the very beginning all Christians would agree on which books belong to NT, which is not the case. Contrary to what you wrote, church councils or synods, whether those of Catholic or Protestant did state “these are the books of the New Testament”. Just google Belgic Confession Article 4 (in 1561) and Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1 (in 1647) from Protestant (Reformed) church!

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    • 1. We know from examples of writings from early church fathers regarding what they thought and how the dealt with forgeries. The four Gospels, even if we assume the later dates asserted by liberal scholars, were all written by 85 AD. There were still people alive (like John himself) who knew Jesus and his followers. There has never been a shred of controversy involving the four Gospels dating from the earliest known history (controversy has arisen only as a modern construct).
      2.Yes, you are right, Wallace does not use “orthodoxy” in its usual sense. Orthodoxy is what was affirmed by that early church, going back to the disciples and associates of the disciples in that first generation after Jesus died. They walked and talked with Jesus. They knew him intimately and the words that he spoke. They not only what he did, but the manner in which he did it, the attitudes he displayed – all the nuances that personal knowledge involves. For all these reasons, documents written by people who knew Jesus or knew people who knew Jesus would reflect the truest, most accurate picture. The intrinsic authority was the authority that matched the reality that they knew.
      3. He does play a little loose with the word discover, but I think the intention is to convey the sense that the NT was not contrived by a subsequent generation, but became solidified in the generation that knew and walked with Jesus – and their firsthand, personal knowledge of who Jesus was and what he said, was the standard. The Church became established and grew up with the collection of writings that they considered scripture which later was recognized as the canon for that very reason. Obviously, Wallace provides a Protestant perspective, and perhaps that is what you find fault with. The key, though, is that the canon (or most of it) was accepted as such long before an official proclamation of it. He said the “early” councils did not state what books belonged in the NT. 367 AD is not early to the church. The Confessions you recite are certainly not early. The fact is that the accepted Gospels and most of the rest of the documents that now comprise the T were accepted and recognized as scriptural long before 367. That some uncertainty remained for 7 documents does not suggest that the other 20 were contrived as scripture in 367 as some suggest. They had been almost universally accepted and treated as scriptural going back into the 1st Century.

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      • vivator Says:

        It seems you still don’t realize that you rely on authority outside NT to determine books of NT. Your statement “We know from examples of writings from early church fathers regarding what they thought and how the dealt with forgeries” and “They knew him intimately and the words that he spoke. They not only what he did …” clearly indicate that you rely on their statement, not on intrinsic authority of NT books because there is such thing in them. If you insist there is intrinsic authority, it itself is subjective, i.e. it depends on personal judgment. During Reformation Luther himself intended to drop four books from canon – fortunately he failed, otherwise Protestant’s NT will be shorter than that of Catholic. Why you are so reluctant to recognize church authority when Scripture itself refers the Church as foundation and pillar of truth (1 Tim 3:15)? You wrote “The Church became established and grew up with the collection of writings that they considered scripture which later was recognized as the canon for that very reason”. Your statement implies you must accept Church authority who considers which books belong to NT. Anyway you are entitled to have your opinion. Just to point out that canonicity of books of the Bible, both OT and NT, is not as straightforward and as smooth as described by Wallace.

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        • I am not sure he would say it was smooth. There were concerns about heretical beliegs arising already in the NT documents, which is all the more reason for the early church to be selective in what they relied on. Until 66 AD, Peter, James and others were centralized in Jerusalem, but there were far flung (for those days) churches established in and out of Roman controlled territory. Paul himself checked back in with Peter and James in Jerusalem at least twice as reflected in 1 Corinthians 15 to be sure they were on the same page. There was great concern with trying to protect the message in the early church. You see that in the epistles. Long before any council recognized an official canon, early church leaders recognized what was considered authoritative and rejected what was not. There some key disagreements, but the canon was largely settled long before official recognition, and later councils made it official to protect from allowing the later written material 2nd century and after) from being accepted as scriptural.

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          • vivator Says:

            You made contradicting statement in “There some key disagreements, but the canon was largely settled long before official recognition”. How can the canon be settled when there were some key differences?

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