Who canonized the New Testament?

Years ago, I noted a problem with simultaneously holding to the inerrancy of scripture and the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura. Since the original manuscripts of the Bible contain no “table of contents,” how can we can be sure that all the right books were included or excluded? Jesus validated all the books of the Old Testament, but what about the books written after He lived?

How do we know if the so-called “disputed books,” such as, 2 Peter, James, 2 John, 3 John and Jude are authentic?

I’ve asked this question of a few theologians, including two who worked on the council that drafted the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. The answer was always unsatisfying to the effect that given the evidence, we just have to make a judgment call.

I therefore concluded that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches must have been right when they taught that the Church Fathers had the authority to canonize the Bible and had been infallible in their ability to do so.

This of course flies in the face of the Reformed principle of “scripture interprets scripture.” If we hold to sola scriptura, then how can we even talk about a canonization process? The result of that journey of thought is an article entitled: Protestantism: Both Orthodox and Catholic! I still think the article has its merits, although I no longer believe that the Church Fathers canonized the Bible.

So the question is, “Who canonized the New Testament?”

At the time that I was writing my article, Debunking the Myths of The Da Vinci Code, I discovered that none of the church fathers ever spoke of the canon as something that was in the process of being recognized, but all assumed that the New Testament books they quoted were scripture. Even Clement of Rome gives these books this level of scriptural authority and at a very early date – by 96 A.D.

I discovered that the canon is self-authenticating. This was a big surprise to me, because I had never heard this taught. However, I believe this view is irrefutable. There are reasons why certain things are mentioned in scripture while other things are not mentioned. There is a reason we are given four Gospels from which to complete a picture and not just one. If we understand the relationship between the parts within the historical context, then the self-authenticating nature of scripture becomes apparent.

You may already know that horror fiction writer Anne Rice’s conversion came only after she realized that none of the books of the New Testament mention the destruction of the Temple. Therefore, none of these books could have been written after the fact.

The liberal idea that these books were written after 70 A.D. is ludicrous. Liberal theologians often claim that the three Gospel writers forged an ad hoc prophecy in the Mount Olivet Discourse. In addition, John prophesies the destruction of the Temple in Revelation and several other New Testament writers allude to the end of Temple worship. According to the liberals, these “prophecies” were written after the fact. But they ignore that fact that there is no New Testament writer who mentions the prophecy’s fulfillment. It just doesn’t make any sense. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament writings.

On the other hand, post-70 A.D. books such as Barnabas do mention the Temple’s destruction — the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy.

Moreover, I will also tell you concerning the temple, how the wretched [Jews], wandering in error, trusted not in God Himself, but in the temple, as being the house of God. For almost after the manner of the Gentiles they worshipped Him in the temple. But learn how the Lord speaks, when abolishing it: “Who hath meted out heaven with a span, and the earth with his palm? Have not I?” “Thus saith the Lord, Heaven is My throne, and the earth My footstool: what kind of house will ye build to Me, or what is the place of My rest?” Ye perceive that their hope is vain. Moreover, He again says, “Behold, they who have cast down this temple, even they shall build it up again.” It has so happened. For through their going to war, it was destroyed by their enemies; and now: they, as the servants of their enemies, shall rebuild it. Again, it was revealed that the city and the temple and the people of Israel were to be given up. For the Scripture saith, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the Lord will deliver up the sheep of His pasture, and their sheep-fold and tower, to destruction.” And it so happened as the Lord had spoken (Barnabas 16:3-4).

This passage clearly places the composition of the Epistle of Barnabas after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Epistle of Barnabas never enjoyed canonical authority for this reason.

So we have that dividing line of 70 A.D. (I’d argue for 67 A.D.) as the cut-off date for all books in the canon with the slightest possible exception of John’s Gospel (which does not contain the destruction of the Temple prophecy) and his three Epistles.

Then I stumbled on the works of Ernest L. Martin and others who claim that the authority of the canon is implicit in the text itself, that is Jesus canonized the Old Testament in Luke chapter 24. In fact, that’s the only passage in the entire Bible in which the TANAK (the Hebrew Old Testament: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings) is referred to as “the scriptures.” Likewise, the entire New Testament was self-consciously canonized by Peter and John. How they did this is staring us right in the face, if we would only see it. Surprisingly, Luke, who was not an eyewitness, was a key link in this process.

We also have to remember that the New Testament writings were addressed to those who knew the authors personally, In turn, their followers and disciples read the accounts and letters knowing the historical context in which the writings were given.

Nobody forges a fake account or a false prophecy and delivers it to supposed eyewitnesses of the events all the while expecting them to receive the writing as inspired and inerrant. All the extant books of the New Testament canon have this self-authenticating quality. No other existing books from the first century are like this.

Simply, if a book were not authentic, whether it was written before or after 70 A.D., the Christians around at the time would have known it.

I also recently discovered that the Apostles James and John were Jesus’ first cousins, another surprise. It’s easy to make too much of the “holy family” status of Jesus disciples, but I also think it’s important not to understate it. I am going to write more soon about how the authority derived from just four men, James the brother of Jesus, Peter, John and Paul, is enough to self-validate the entire New Testament canon.


This is some great material. Thanks for posting this. I've had question about the Biblical cannon from time to time, and this helped a lot.
Curious: on a related topic, didn't Martin Luther consider that the book of Hebrews should not be part of the Biblical cannon? Any thoughts about that?
Good articles to read, until the light falls on them...

Truly quite CRAZY STATEMENT done here too, which I quote:

I also recently discovered that the Apostles James and John were Jesus' first cousins, another surprise. It's easy to make too much of the "holy family" status of Jesus disciples, but I also think it's important not to understate it.

Further... Then it is clearly that great mistakes to find everywhere here.., are obvious in the fact that when you all express your ideas of what & how it can be, you are totally missing the most basic necessity; a Jewish Rabbuni Jesus' clearly Jewish thoughts & the How-Known.., which none of you own, you show none of them, that's why you'll never be able completely to comprehend correctly. Not until you go back to the main sources and look much closer at the entire picture.

Great articles written, but to much fatality in the points you try to make.

Write with more care; think about the truth hidden deep within the knowledge; God bless only those who learn how to avoid horrible mistakes...

The canon went through quite a process of formation. There were certain books never questioned (such as the four gospels), but others that were questioned well into the 300's A.D.

Martin Luther followed the lead of the early church in holding several books in lesser esteem: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.

Take care & God bless
The problem with the process theory is that we never read anything in the first 200 years about the so-called "formation" of a New Testament canon, we never read a single orthodox church father who questions any book in the canon. All quote freely from the New Testament books as scripture and there is no discussion of a "process" of canonization.

We read of a "rule of faith" (KANON) which was preexistent and now determines orthodoxy, not of a developing orthodoxy that determines the canon.

If we are talking about a "questionable" book, such as 2 Peter, then what we find is not an active questioning, but rather an argument from silence. It is assumed by some that since references to this book are scant until the end of the second century, then the book must have been "questionable" or not included in the original list.

To hold this view, we must assume that we have all the writings of the church fathers and that 2 Peter could NOT have been accepted simply because it is not mentioned except for perhaps a few brief references in the most early patristic writings.

I use 2 Peter as an example becuase it is the least quoted New Testament book in the church fathers. However, a few references to 2 Peter appear fairly early. Although the Epistle is never referred to by name, it is quoted without any qualifications.

The view of the second and third generation bishops who succeeded the Apostles is that the canon was transmitted directly to them. They knew which Apostles wrote which books because they received them directly from them.

The great irony here is that some books that were disputed later -- after 300 A.D. -- were universally accepted earlier.

If you hold to a canonization by a process of consensus, then essentially, you favor the view of a man-made canon. This is why we get ridiculous statements by Neo-Gnostics that the canon was "voted upon" and other nonsense that defies the record of history.

But if each book received its authority at the time of its writing, then each book received its canonical authority by virtue of its inspiration. And most importantly to our discussion, the book was understood to be inspired by its original recipients.

Contrary to popular opinion, although Luther questioned some of the New Testament books (after siding with the view of Jerome that the OT apocrypha ought not be included in the canon) he ultimately accepted all NT books as inspired and canonical.

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