Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:
The New Testament Canon (the authoritative collection of books) was formed over a period of sorting and sifting overseen by the Holy Spirit that was essentially completed by c. AD 200. The fifth-century church councils finally settled the matter.
I heard something like this as a young seminarian. I suspect you’ve heard something similar. Upon further study I am convinced that this is at least 100 years too late in its date and places far too much emphasis on the church councils. So why these 27 books that we call the NT canon?
Let’s begin in the 5th century. No evidence exists that the early councils actually debated the Canon. They only listed their books. If we evangelicals embrace the list in the councils we make two mistakes. First, we give almost divine authority to these councils. For evangelicals this should have been settled at the Reformation. Second, they also endorsed the Old Testament Apocrypha as Scripture. If we take them as authoritative, we must adopt the Apocrypha as well the New Testament (NT) (this is the stance taken by A.C. Sundberg). Instead, it is better to evaluate the councils than submit to them. I think it is clear they were endorsing both testaments as they were handed down to them in Greek. Regarding the NT, the choice is correct. In the OT, they were simply listing the books of the Septuagint that (wrongly) included these extra books.
So, from where does the NT Canon come? A large portion of the NT is affirmed as Scripture within the NT and, thus, has the highest endorsement. First, at 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter affirms all the letters of Paul to be Scripture (on par with the OT). Second, Paul, at 1 Timothy 5:18 quotes Deut. 25:4 AND Luke 10:7 as Scripture. Even if we dismiss the authenticity of 2 Peter and the Pastorals, since they are widely considered first-century productions, we still have early affirmation of these books. Because I accept their authenticity I believe we have apostolic affirmation of not only these books, but the whole enterprise of New Covenant documents, equally inspired as the OT. Given this kind of NT evidence, the conclusion lies close at hand that almost before the ink was dry, the earliest Christians, including leading figures in the church such as the apostles Paul and Peter, considered contemporaneous Christian documents as Scripture on the same level as the OT. From this it is not too difficult to trace the emerging canonical consciousness with regard to the formation of the NT through the writings of the early church fathers in the late first century and early second century. In fact, prior to the year 150, the only NT book that was not named as authentic or not unequivocally cited as authoritative in the extant patristic writings is the tiny book of 3 John.
How is it that the early Christians so readily received new documents as Scripture—in fact, a whole new corpus of material? The foundation is clearly the OT Canon. The “Old Testament” was clearly considered to be based on covenant documents, and portions of it were called “the book of the covenant” (see Exod 24:7; Deut 29:20; 31:9, 26; 2 Kgs 23:2, 21; 2 Chr 34:30). We can also see similar language in Second Temple literature. With the inauguration of the New Covenant, it is likely that Jewish Christians would have been looking for similar documents. The title of our book “the New Testament” is better translated “New Covenant.” Thus, we have quite a bit of what I call “literary evidence” for the emergence of the NT. But we have physical evidence as well.
The early manuscripts of the NT generally (the exceptions prove the rule) circulated in four codex collections (a codex is like a modern book, i.e., not rolls). These are the Four Gospels, Acts-General Epistles, Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. These are set by at least the mid-point of the second century (c. AD 150). Things like the nomina sacra (abbreviations of the divine names), uniform titles, and similar arrangements show a common ancestor(s) for these collections. This means that the collections as collections must be much earlier than AD 150. For most of the collection we can confidently date them into the early second century or late first century (of course, the books themselves are much earlier). These were bound together and published as a collection because they are “like” in some way. The similar character is that they were canon.
The first codex collected and published was the Pauline Corpus. Published letter collections were fairly common in antiquity (see, e.g., Cicero and Pliny the younger). These were compiled from the author’s retained copies. That is, these writers not only composed letters but kept a copy for their records. These retained copies become the published letters. This explains how the little book of Philemon could survive. It was part of Paul’s retained collection. Paul possibly makes mention of this collection at 2 Timothy 3:13, “bring…my books, especially the parchments” (a word that described papyrus codices). That Paul’s collection would have begun as a parchment codex may explain the mysterious origins of the codex. At any rate, the author (or his students posthumously) would publish the material. We are on good grounds to assume the Pauline letter collection (that included Hebrews) was the product of Paul himself and published near the end of his life or shortly afterward (late AD 60s!).
It is common today to suggest a huge number of gospels to which only our four were chosen by wool-robed graybeards of the church. This is untrue. About eight other Gospels were written in second century. Most were heretical. All were rejected by the church as Johnny-come-latelies. As Serapion (c. AD 189 ) states, “such were not handed down to us.” Instead, the earliest physical evidence (the MSS) show a preference for a codex that included only four gospels in the following order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (sound familiar?). We only see the four apostolic gospels, and never one paired with a heretical gospel (e.g., Thomas and Mark). The earliest Gospel fragments show signs of the same four-gospel codex that is common later. For example, P75 (c. AD 200) contains the end of Luke and the beginning of John. It was obviously contained all four gospels in the familiar order. One MS, P90, is dated to about AD 125 containing a portion of John. It shows both the nomina sacra (like the other mss) and it is in the codex form. It is likely this was connected to the fourfold Gospel codex. If so, this tells us that the four-gospel codex existed before AD 125.
When we compare this to literary evidence we see that the Four Gospel Canon was firmly in place near the first decade of the second century. Papias (c. AD 120) related the origins of the four. Justin Martyr (c. AD 130) knows of all four gospels and notes that they are read along with the prophets. Irenaeus (c. AD 180) defends at length the four-fold nature of the Gospel. Hippolytus (202) wrote of a “fourfold Gospel.” Tertullian (207), Origen of Alexandria (226), Dionysius of Alexandria (251) and many others tenaciously hold to a four-fold Gospel while rejecting any others. Papias claims he got his information from “the elder” no later than AD 100. Thus, a four-fold gospel Canon goes deep into the second century. Because the Gospel of John was written c. AD 80 – 85 it is impossible to go back any further.
The third collection is Acts-general epistles. We do not have much evidence for this collection in the second century (we do in later centuries). These later manuscripts must, of course, have ancestors in the second century. We do have citations by the Fathers of the individual books of Acts and the General Epistles in the second-century, so their authoritative status is generally accepted. That the collection includes the book of Acts seems odd, considering its association with Luke (indeed some manuscripts of the Gospels include Acts). It is likely that when the Four-Gospel Codex was formed (separating Luke from Acts), the Acts-General Epistle Codex came into existence.
Regarding Revelation, we do not have a large number of early manuscripts. Even so, it is clear that the book of Revelation has a unique transmission history. Sometimes it is found connected to some of the other collections. Sometimes it is by itself (sometimes bound with a commentary). We really only see a stable place (at the end of the NT) when the large uncials are produced. That a stable place in the transmission is rather late may suggest that the other four codices were already in publication when it was written (although this is far from sure). Nevertheless, the canonical status is early and well attested in the citations of the Fathers in the second century.
Thus, the literary and the physical evidence suggests a collection and transmission of the NT near the first quarter of the second-century. That is not to say that there were no questions regarding the books of the canon. We know of questions regarding the general epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation as early as the second century. We also know that some other works were briefly considered canonical in some local settings. This is often seen as evidence of “sorting and sifting.” I do not believe this is a necessary conclusion. The truth is that if we were waiting for Christians everywhere to come to a consensus, we would never have a canon of Scripture. Instead, the best evangelical response, in my opinion, is to affirm, with the early church, “these were handed down to us.”
Scott Kellum is professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. He is the author of several books including Preaching the Farewell Discourse: An Expository Walk-through of John 13:31 – 17:26 (B&H Academic, 2014); The Unity of the Farewell Discourse: The Literary Integrity of John 13:31 – 16:33 (T&T Clark, 2004); and coauthor of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (B&H Academic, 2009), among other works. You can follow Dr. Kellum on Twitter @kellum_s.
The views expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Academic, Lifeway Christian Resources, or any employee thereof.