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.
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;
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.