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How was the New Testament canon assembled?

Here’s a question that I’ve wrestled with for about 15 years. I’ve changed my mind on the issue in the last two years after reading what the New Testament itself and the church fathers of the first and second centuries have to say on the issue of canonicity.

Protestants teach sola scriptura — that all the Christian needs to know about matters pertaining to salvation is contained in scripture. And since the Bible contains no “table of contents” this presents a problem when there are challenges to the canonicity of specific books.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believe in the authority of church councils, creeds and canons (or the “rule of faith”) not only to determine matters pertaining to saving faith, but to determine the canon of Scripture itself. Here is the way one Eastern Orthodox writer put it: “The church preceded the Bible; the Bible did not precede the church.” Of course, the writer was using this argument to validate the continued authority of the church to determine matters of faith and doctrine infallibly.

What I am most concerned about is how to counter the arguments of modern liberals and Neo-Gnostics who have popularized the idea that the late second century fathers, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian, began to assemble the books of the New Testament —and even to revise and edit them — only when the Gnostics and other heretics became a threat to their authority.

Was the New Testament received as a whole or was it assembled? Most evangelicals concede that New Testament canonization was a process that took a century or more.

I posed this question to a well-known theologian once: “If we believe in sola scriptura, that the Bible alone is inerrant, how can we be sure that we have all the correct books in the Bible — especially so-called disputed books, such as James, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Revelation. If scripture alone is inerrant, how can we infallibly know that Peter wrote 2 Peter? How do we treat disputed passages such as John 8 and Mark 16?”

He surprisingly came back with the answer that we cannot know for certain, but that he personally believes that there is enough information in the books themselves and in their history for us to today to make the correct decision.

At that time, his answer was unacceptable to me. The question has huge implications for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. His answer cannot counter the skeptics. I then made the decision to accept the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic view that it was the church itself that was given the authority to decide the canon infallibility.

Then in the last two years, I’ve come across another idea that is more plausible:

The New Testament canonizes itself through internal evidence

If we begin with the writings of Peter, John and Matthew as genuine apostolic writings, we can quickly find a “pedigree” for all the books of the New Testament with the exception of Hebrews, James and Jude. And I believe even these are not a problem if we look at other internal evidences within those books and some external evidence from the book of 1 Clement that was written between 68 to 96 AD.

In fact, Peter, prior to his martyrdom in Rome, knew the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:14-16) and therefore must have known most of the other writings of the Apostles. The majority of apostolic writings (Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s Epistles, Peter’s Epistles) were available to Peter in Rome by the mid 60s. According to 2 Timothy 4:9-12, Luke, Mark and Timothy were in Rome at the time of the martyrdom of Paul and Peter around 67 A.D.

In fact, I look at the following passage as a key to when most of the books of the New Testament could have been assembled in one place.

“Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica — Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. And Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:9-12).

The questions we should ask here are: “Which books?” and “Which parchments?”

Parchments are blank pieces of papyrus or animal skins used for preparing manuscripts. We don’t know what “books” Paul is referring to here. Some have suggested that Paul is referring to scrolls of the Old Testament. However, it is unlikely that toward the end of his life, Paul is asking two important bishops in the early church to take a dangerous journey to Rome before winter in order to prepare an edition of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s also improbable that Paul needed the Scriptures for some other purpose. Rome had Jewish synagogues with these writings and Paul, as a rabbi, would have also committed huge portions of scripture to memory.

Paul almost certainly meant his own writings and perhaps other Apostolic writings that Timothy and Mark had assembled. It is thought that the “cloak” he refers to here is a large piece of waterproof leather used to wrap scrolls and parchments – sort of a first century book case that was used to protect parchment and papyrus when traveling.

But what is significant about this passage is that it puts five important New Testament figures in Rome around 66 or 67 AD. We know that Mark was an associate of Peter (1 Peter 5:13). The second century Church Father, Papias of Hierapolis, relates that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and wrote his Gospel as a record of what Peter preached at Rome. We know that that Timothy was Paul’s scribe (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; Philemon 1:1; Philippians 1:1). Timothy is even mentioned as being present at the writing of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:23). Thus I personally believe the most likely explanation for the authorship of Hebrews was that it was composed during this time as one of the final letters of Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews was probably then redacted after Paul’s death either by either Luke, Mark or Timothy — or perhaps by an elder or a scribe from the Church at Rome, such as Clement.

We have an interesting early testimony from Clement of Rome (c. 68-96 AD) on the whereabouts of Peter and Paul at the end of the reign of the Emperor Nero (67 AD).

“But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience” (1 Clement 5).

If we accept 1 Clement as a reliable history (although not authoritative as Scripture) then we also have to put Peter in Rome along with Paul, Luke, Mark and Timothy — writers to whom are attributed 19 out of the 27 books of the New Testament. Thus we have these 19 books of the New Testament in Rome in about 67 AD.

This body of work was then collated passed on to the last remaining Apostle, John, in Ephesus who assembled the canon together with his own writings and passed it on to his disciples. The remaining books, the Gospel of Matthew, the Epistles of James and Jude are associated with the Jerusalem church and would have come through Antioch to Ephesus after the destruction of Jerusalem.

This is why Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch are able to quote freely from so many New Testament books as though they were already accepted as authoritative by the late first century and early second century. It is significant that these bishops represent the furthest eastern and western centers of Christianity at the end of the Apostolic era in 70 AD — Antioch, Asia Minor and Rome. For there to be such continuity in the New Testament texts they quote, the canon must have been circulated in some type of systematic way in order for it to have reached such a wide audience.

The testimony from the late first and second century Church Fathers (Papias of Hierapolis, Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria) is that each of the books received its authority directly from the Apostles Peter, John and James the brother of Jesus.

1. The Gospel of Matthew originated in Jerusalem or Antioch and received its authority from the Apostle Matthew and the other 12 Apostles;
2. Mark received its authority from the Apostle Peter;
3. Luke from the Apostle Paul (and the 12 Apostles);
4. John from the Apostle John;
5. Acts from the Apostle Paul (and the 12 Apostles);
6. All the letters of Paul from the Apostle Peter (see: 2 Peter 3:14-16);
7. The letters of Peter from the Apostle Peter;
8. The letters of John from the Apostle John;
9. Revelation from the Apostle John;

10. Hebrews gets its earliest mention by Clement of Rome (c. 68-96 AD);

(This is the only Epistle of disputed authorship that most modern evangelical scholars think has no clear link to Paul. However, Hebrews is quoted extensively in the earliest writings, such as 1 Clement, and all the earliest church fathers believed it was of Paul.)

11. James from James the brother of Jesus (and from the 12 Apostles);
12. Jude from James (and from the 12 Apostles).

These two letters have enough internal testimony to place the authors as brothers named James and Jude in the church at Jerusalem. It’s a small step of process of elimination to identify them as the brothers of Jesus.

Early Codices

Another key to confirming this view is the fact that the earliest New Testament papyri (fragments from the 2nd and 3rd centuries) were bound in codices of five books:

1. The four Gospels;
2. Paul’s nine Epistles to the seven churches plus Hebrews;
3. Paul’s five Pastoral Epistles;
4. The seven Catholic Epistles;
5. Revelation.

In fact, the earliest fragments from the mid-second century appear right around the time that “books” came into use of rather than scrolls. It is then not too much of a stretch to say that the early Christians scribes either popularized or invented the codex in order to collate the books of the New Testament and distribute them over a wide geographical area. This would eliminate the problem of having a separate scroll for each book that might be lost or damaged.

We should then examine the earliest testimony of the Church fathers, especially Papias, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria to confirm the apostolic authority and authentic authorship of the New Testament books. Irenaeus is arguing to defend the canon against heretics who would make the number of Gospels more or less. He is writing as if this is already established, not as one who is arguing to establish a canon. Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp, received the canon from the generation of Christians who were taught by the Apostles themselves. The term that evangelicals should use is “receive as canonical,” rather than “determine” or “choose” which books were canonical. Thus the canon was not assembled over a long period of time, but was known by the second and third generation of Christians who defended its authority against the claims of heretics.

Another important key is the Muratorian Canon (170 AD) is the earliest list of the New Testament books. It names all of the New Testament books in our canon today with the exception of James –- which could have been overlooked or mentioned in a missing portion of the fragment.

From this, I draw the conclusion that a New Testament canon existed at the very latest by the early-second century, and there is strong evidence that all 27 books of the New Testament were known as Scripture at the end of the first century by bishops such as Clement of Rome, Papias of Hierapolis, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch.

Comments

Your comments are welcome!

Peace be with the reader.

The harvest is ripe, the time has come.

The Faithful Witness
Duke

Posted by Duke on 04/24/2014 12:57 PM #

"Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken...", this is from 2 Timothy not 1 Timothy as stated.

Great job, I love the articles.

Daniel...

Posted by Daniel Poon on 04/24/2014 12:57 PM #

Very useful post, thanks!

Posted by  Ari on 04/24/2014 12:57 PM #

I really respect the amount of thought which you've put into solving this question, but I have a few problems with your conclusions. Specifically, you construct a pretty sound logical theory, but it doesn't match up with the history, which is why church historians don't really forward the idea of an "Apostle's Bible" (as helpful as that would be).

(1) The early Church Fathers were divided on the authenticity of canon. It wasn't just Marcion, as the poster before me claimed. Some writings were "homologoumena," or universally accepted, while others were "antilegomena," those "spoken against." Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Revelation were all questioned, as were ultimately rejected books like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Had, like you suggest, a compendium been assembled by one of the Apostles, it seems to me that this dispute wouldn't have occurred. The faithful followers in that church would have preserved it, or copies of it, just as they did the copied epistles themselves.

(2) There were numerous meetings to decide upon canon in the first few centuries, suggesting contrary to the modern Protestant claim of all Scripture being "obviously Scripture," suggests that people were genuinely confused at points.

http://www.catholicapologetics.org/ap030700.htm has a time-line which I think accurately sums up the incontrovertible aspects of canon history, beginning with the canon devised by Melito, bishop of Sardis, which contrary to the poster before mine's claim, was NOT a NT canon. It was strictly OT. Unless he is referring to a different 170 A.D. canonization process.

(3) The logic of your post seems circular to me. You say we can trust James and Jude because they claim to have been written by James and Jude. But almost all the rejected works (like the Apocalypse of Peter, to reference an early one, or the Gnostic ones you mention) claimed to be apostolic in origin. [Some of the rejected books were rejected because they were errant accounts created by a faithful Christian - others were written by devious fakes. Determining which of the three a particular epistle or even gospel fit into could be hard work].

It doesn't, for example, solve the problem of Old Testament canon. The Hebrew versions of the OT differ from the Septuagint in their inclusions (the forerunner to the Apocrypha debate in modern Christianity).

(4) Even if everything you've said up to this point is right and all 3 of my objections are invalid, it still doesn't address the glaring problem of the Old Testament. Esther doesn't even mention God.
http://cantuar.blogspot.com/2007/08/challenge-to-protestants-is-book-of.html is an excellent short article addressing this and other concerns you brought up.

As you may have assumed, I'm Catholic. I think arguments (like the Eastern Orthodox writer, and the poster before me) about the Church creating Scripture or Scripture creating the Church are fundamentally flawed, in one sense.

Christ created the Church (Matthew 16:17-19), and His Apostles (and perhaps others) created Scripture through the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). To try and suggest the primacy of either one over the other is to suggest that either the Holy Spirit or Christ did a better job, it seems to me. [And the silly "humans are just human, of course they're errant!" argument is both conclusary and applicable to both halves of this equation. Infallibility is ordinarily performed through the fallible.]

Yes, we know Scripture is accurate because a Church council said it was, as Catholics. And yes, we know that the Church is Christ's, because verses in Scripture say so. These are circular - they're supporting propositions. So if you believe in the one (and anyone who believes in Christ hopefully fits into this category), you can believe in the other.

P.S. If you believe that the early Church Fathers got it right about the canon, which I commend, why not believe them on other issues, like the primacy of Rome, the validity of the Eucharist, the necessary oneness of the Church under a stratified structure of apostles/bishops, elders/priests, and deacons?

Or put another way, if you think that they're pagan idolaters who worship mere bread and wine out of either evilness, ignorance, and so forth, how can you trust that they organized and compiled the Bible accurately?

Posted by Joseph on 01/10/2008 05:03 AM #

I am familiar with these arguments. This is the reason why I have written this article -- to oppose them.

1. There was a certain amount of doubt from the third century on about several books. You named some of them. But the second century church fathers didn't doubt any of the books you mention. One of the problems with this view is that it is assumed that if a church father does not quote a certain book, it was doubted. The least quoted books are exactly those we would imagine them to be -- the shortest epistles that contain themes that are covered eleswhere. The book of Hebrews is one of the MOST quoted books early on -- in 1 Clement it is is the most quoted NT book. In short, there is no controversy or doubts among the noted church fathers in the first or second century.

2. What I am suggesting is that the last living Apostles had collated their writings and passed them on to their bishops. They weren't floating around in various places having to be collected later. Thus from 70 AD to 110 AD there were people yet living who had witnessed the Apostles. They knew which writings were genuine because they reeived these writings directly from the Apostles. Therefore, it is foolish to think that a third century church father is in a position to doubt the book of Hebrews

3. Since James and Jude appear early in the quotations of the church fathers it is not circular reasoning to conclude that the autographs named the authors of these books. If the books were spurious works, the bishops of that generation would not have used these quotations in their writings.

4. The Old Testament has even more claim to same-generation testimony on the genuine authorship of scripture. It was known which were the books of Moses, Samuel, Solomon, etc. The difference is that with certain books, such as Daniel, the Jews had to wait several generations to see whether the prophecies came to pass before they could say whether they were inspired scripture.

Some books were doubted as to their divine inspiration and authority, but their authorship or historical testimony was not doubted.

The difference with the NT Apostlic writings is that people knew they had a direct connection with Jesus, and they understood what the relationships were between the Apostles and Mark, Luke, James and Jude becuase they had direct contact with them.

**************

Really I don't think we disagree as to the reliability of the canon. But to say the canon developed or was decided by the church rather than it was "received" is to ultimately deny scriptural authority.

I don't discount the importance of the church councils that examined how the scripture was received. I am not denying that there were later controversies. But in no way did they create a canon. The canon was known from the beginning.

Posted by Jay Rogers on 01/10/2008 08:56 AM #

I am like you, as a Protestant, I struggled with this issue for a long time and asked many educated theologians and came up with absolutely nothing. So I can appreciate your frustration. I'm Catholic now so I no longer have that frustration of course.

But I'm afraid this is an oversimplification of the canon issue. It may seem to you that the books "canonized themselves" and thus the resulting books were obvious but none of the early fathers would agree.

In fact, there was no canon that would be acceptable to anyone today until the council of Rome (382 I think?) which canonized the 73 books of the Bible. Before that, every canon would be rejected by all branches of Christianity. If the canon wasn't so obvious to those who spoke the language and lived just after the apostles, how could I believe that Martin Luther had rediscovered its truth?

Posted by Tim A. Troutman on 07/09/2008 08:40 AM #

No, the earliest NT canon is 170 A.D. and it matches ours today.

If you advocate the Old Testament Apocrypha, then I'd simply say there is no harm in this and I'd agree to disagree.

You already know the Protestant argument, but it isn't true to say taht the second century church fathers disagreed on the canon.

Unless you are going to claim that Marcion was a Christian.

The church fathers did not DECIDE the books of the canon, they appealed to those before them who knew th Apostles and RECEIVED the books.

The church RECEIVED it did not DECIDE the canon.

Marcion and his followers not only had a different canon but they taught a religion fundamentally different from both Judaism and Christianity. They had no connection to Peter, Paul or John.

Posted by Jay Rogers on 07/09/2008 10:17 AM #

Thankx for the article- was an interesting read. :)

Question for Joseph: Where in the NT is the Church (apart from the individual apostles and prophets) given infallible authority?

Posted by Catz206 on 03/05/2009 05:04 PM #

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