How Did We Get Our Bibles?

Can We Cound On The Bible?

The Canon of the New Testament – Part 2

Review: In our last lesson we began examining why we accept the 27 books of the New Testament. We noted from scripture the process of inspiration as the words of Jesus who delivered the message of His Father was transferred to His apostles (and other inspired men) who in turn delivered the message, imparted the Holy Spirit upon others (and thus abilities in various capacities to reveal the word of God), and in time wrote down their message and delivered it to churches.
The method of circulation of NT letters was to share it with other churches, of which we gave several examples of this (see Col. 4:16, Rev. 1:4, Gal. 1:2, 1 Pet. 1:1, etc.). We also noted that there was respect for apostolic authority – Acts 2:42, Eph. 2:20, 2 Pet. 3:1-2, etc.).
Tonight, building on this we want to examine why we have 27 books in the New Testament and why these were included and others were excluded.

II. Compiling the books of the New Testament Canon

a. In 367 AD, we have recorded the first list of all 27 books of the New Testament. It was in a letter written by Athanasius. As a result of this, critics of scripture claim that the New Testament was not officially recognized (in its present state) until about 3 centuries after their writings. Many of the same persons will claim that the New Testament canon is questionable, either containing books that don’t belong or failing to include books that ought to be there. But is that true?
b. An examination of the history of the development of the NT canon reveals that what we have was recognized long before that time. In fact is it wrong to say that in 367 AD, the Canon was officially established or decided. The truth is, the majority of the New Testament books were universally recognized during the 2nd century (actually, as we noted above, scriptures indicate that AS they were being written, they were immediately recognized).

We will notice those that were not as this lesson progresses.
c. Why the need for a canon?
i. The need to compile the letters. As the church was spreading throughout Asia, Africa and Europe there was a need. Because they were circulated individually, there was a need to determine which ones were authoritative AND to compile them into a collection. In other words, they needed to know which books were worthy to be read in churches.
ii. Because at the end of the first century, as spiritual gifts declined and then ceased, “that which was perfect” (1 Cor. 13:8-12, Jas. 1:25) needed to be complied because prophets were no longer around to verify the message AND such would help put an end to later books appearing and claiming inspiration.
iii. The growth of heretical groups such as the Gnostics, and Marcionites.
iv. As Christianity spread into foreign lands there was a need for translations. This required uniformity of authorized works
v. Persecutions of the Roman Empire called for a need to compile these books. Some of the persecuting emperors called for the destruction of the word of God. An example of this was Diocletian who in 303 AD issued an edict for the destruction of sacred works of the Christians. As Josh McDowell said “Who wanted to die for just a religious book? They needed to know.”[1]
d. Criteria for determining canonicity
i. It needs to be emphasized that the Canon was NOT chosen, but was “discovered”. “The books that made it into the canon did so by means of "survival of the fittest" - it was not a random drawing with all participants beginning on equal footing. The church did not create the canon, "but came to recognize, accept, affirm, and confirm the self-authenticating quality of certain documents that imposed themselves as such upon the Church. If this fact is obscured, one comes into serious conflict not with dogma but with history."[2]
ii. We must realize that for books to even be considered, they had to meet a high standard of criteria and historical acceptance which helped them to recognize that which was of apostolic authority. The following principles were considered:
1. Did it have the quality of inspiration? The quality of inspiration means that the fingerprint of God can be seen in the document, including claims of inspiration and God speaking through the author (either mentioning the Father directly or the Spirit of God), a continuity and logical flow.
One author noted that inspiration was NOT the only criterion for inspiration, but it was necessary. In other words, we know there were other inspired works (such as the book to the Laodiceans, whatever other letters Paul wrote to Corinth, etc.) but they are not included. However, know that if a work Is NOT considered inspired, it cannot be part if the Canon.
2. Was the author an apostle or did he have apostolic authority? Those books written by men other than apostles, had direct interaction with the apostles. For example: John Mark (author of the Gospel of Mark) was closely associated with Peter. He also accompanied Paul on part of his first journey and was later thought to be useful.
Luke was a physician who spent much time with Paul (writing Luke and Acts)
IF a work did not have the fingerprints of an apostle on it, it was immediately dismissed.
3. Does the doctrine agree with the canon of truth or “the rule of faith”? A work could not contradict the other known inspired writings, including the Old Testament.
4. Was the work accepted by early churches, and that more than locally? A characteristic of letters considered Canonical was that they enjoyed more than a local circulation. There were some letters that had only a small area of local circulation. Such was not sufficient to accept something into the Canon (though maybe it was inspired).
e. Accepting the 27 books –
While the 27 books were not mentioned in a single list until 367 AD, all of them had been discussed previously and had been included in lists of that which was recognized as inspired scripture.
i. Early authorities beginning in the 2nd century either mention many of them in lists or quoted from them, some liberally.
Who are the “church fathers”? They were a group of men from the 2nd century who for the next several centuries wrote spiritual materials as followers of Jesus. These men were spiritual leaders during this time who furthered Christianity, some upholding the truth while others promoted their own agendas. Their significance includes:
1. They identified various books that were considered inspired, though not complete lists until 367 AD. They did so in some cases by referring to writings as “scripture” or saying, “It is written”. They also mentioned specific books as being the word of God and they rejected others that were not. This is the point we are focusing on in this lesson.
2. They also quoted from these books and as such are a source of verification of the original manuscripts.
3. They recorded history, both secular and religious, concerning the development of the church (and apostasy).
ii. Some examples of this:
1. Clement of Rome, in 95 AD, he wrote to Christians in Corinth making reference to Matthew & Luke. He also demonstrated familiarity with Hebrews, Romans, Corinthians, as well as 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter and Ephesians.[3]
2. Ignatius, was an elder in Antioch of Assyria who was martyred in 110 AD, and thus was a contemporary of John and possibly other apostles. While there is no evidence he met them, he did quote from several books of the New Testament including: The gospels of Matthew & Luke, as well as Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1Thessalonians – a total of 8 letters.
3. Polycarp, (70 AD- 155 AD) was an elder in Smyrna who died as a martyr. He quoted from 17 books of the New Testament in his writings.
4. According to Milton Fisher, who published an essay on The Canon of the New Testament, “The first three outstanding church Fathers, Clement, Polycarp and Ignatius, used the bulk of the material of the New Testament in a revealingly casual manner - authenticated Scriptures where being accepted as authoritative without argument. In the writings of these men only Mark (which closely parallels the material of Matthew), 2 and 3 John, Jude, and 2 Peter are not clearly attested.” [4]
5. Irenaeus of Lyons (120/140 – 200/203 AD) was an apologist that refuted Gnosticism among other things. One of his works, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) quotes from or alluded to all the books of the NT except Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, & Jude. According to George Fisher, in his book The grounds of theistic and Christian belief said of the writings of Irenaeus concerning the gospels, “This leads him to present an account of the composition of the Gospels – how Matthew published ‘a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language;’ Mark put in writing ‘the things were preached by Peter;’ Luke, ‘the attendant of Paul,’ wrote the third Gospel; and ‘afterwards, John the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast – he again put forth his Gospel while he abode at Ephesus of Asia.’”[5]
6. Marcion, was a heretic who in 144 AD propagated a doctrine which rejected the God of the Old Testament and anything to do with the Jews, stating that the God of the Old Testament was incompatible with Jesus of the New Testament. So he established his own customized canon. His story is interesting, but of note to us in our present discussion is his recognition of the gospel of Luke (which he gutted), as well as recognizing 10 of Paul’s letters as authoritative, (though he made whatever changes he deemed necessary to them) – all of them except 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. He accepted Romans-2 Thessalonians and Philemon.
THE POINT: Is recognition of the presence and use of these letters.
SOME SAY, it was his heresies that prompted the need to develop the Canon.
7. Valentinus, (approx 100-160 AD), was a Gnostic, but his writings included references to all four gospels and several of Paul’s letters (Romans-Colossians), as well as 1 Peter & 1 John & Revelation. Of note, he wrote his own gospel entitled, “The Gospel of Truth” which is obviously rejected, containing his Gnostic influence.
8. The Muratorian Canon (ca. 170-200 AD) . A manuscript found in the 8th century was a copy of this manuscript which dates to around 200 AD. In it we find a list of books beginning with Luke through Philemon, 1 & 2 John, Jude and Revelation. What is interesting is that we do not have beginning of this document and it begins, “at which however he was present and so he has set it down. The third Gospel book, that according to Luke…” NOTE: The manuscript clearly implies 4 gospels.
9. We could continue to add to this list. A good location to find a list of such quotes and other occasions is found at:
10. THE POINT: The majority of letters were recognized as scripture VERY EARLY. It was just a matter of compiling them together. All in all, 20 of the 27 letters of the New Testament were STRONGLY accepted as scripture with very little dispute, and as we have seen, even by some who perverted scripture to advance their own doctrines.
iii. There were 7 letters of the NT that were questionable at first.
1. They are: Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, James, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.
2. IT is worthy of note that these books were not generally rejected as spurious (uninspired or fraudulent), but there were simply questions about them as to whether they belonged, because of the HIGH standard required for authority of a book. Questions derived around their authorship or something within their content. Some describe their acceptance as slow. The questions were eventually resolved and they became universally accepted. As you study them, you see that they DO meet the criteria necessary to be accepted as Canon.
3. Reasons for a slow acceptance:[6]
a. Hebrews was called into question because the author was not named. But its content could have been that of Paul having many similarities to his writings. Just because the author is not named does not disqualify a book as there may have been reasons for such (i.e. persecutions, etc.).
b. James because of its teachings on faith and works. It had to be complementary to the epistles of Paul (we know it is). In time, a study of the epistle determined there is NO contradiction between James and Paul’s letters. As one author noted, they were addressing two different groups from two different approaches (much like the four different gospels appeal to different groups).
c. 2 Peter was perhaps the most disputed because: Some claimed it to be a 2nd century work. It was eventually accepted.
1) Of its dissimilarity to 1 Peter (different style and vocabulary). But, with only 2 letters belonging to Peter, we don’t have enough of his documents to make such an argument a valid judgment.
2) 2 Pet. 3:2 & 4 makes reference to an earlier generation – Peter speaks of words spoken before by prophets and their commandments as apostles. Also the description of vs. 4 describes a later generation who scoffs at the Lord’s coming. BUT, an examination of the text removes this as an issue. Peter might simply be noting his work was NOT the earliest of inspired letters - and it was not. Vs. 4 is a futuristic prophecy, though the tendency could have been beginning as Peter wrote. This letter was obviously written at the conclusion of Peter’s life (2 Pet. 3:1)
3) The mention of letters by Paul (2 Pet. 3:15-16) indicating there was a collection of letters being circulated by Paul. Such might have been possible (thought: What were the books and parchments Paul wanted Timothy to bring him – 2 Tim. 4:13?).
Such an argument is without merit if Peter wrote it later in his life. NOTE: While we don’t have definite information on the death of Peter, it is believed he died by crucifixion (upside down at his request) around 67 -68 AD, about the same time as Paul.
4) Incorporation of material very similar to Jude. Some argued that 2 Peter was based upon the writings of Jude. Others argued that Jude was a copy of Peter (i.e. circular arguments). But that doesn’t mean that one copied the other. Could they not have both been written by different men to different audiences conveying the same idea? Would this not be plausible IF both were guided by the same Holy Spirit?
d. 2 & 3 John – because of their limited circulation, brevity and private nature. But their message is clearly in line with the writings of John.
There was also debate as to their authorship. But strong similarity to 1 John helped in its acceptance.
e. Jude was questioned because of its quote by Enoch in vs. 14 which is not found in the Old Testament. But that does NOT mean it was not said and not known. Jude was actually accepted rather early. It was only after debate over the canon became important that it was called into question.
f. Revelation because of its apocalyptic nature, including its teaching of the millennium. However, questions dealt more with interpretation than inspiration. It was actually referenced and accepted early by Justin Martyr (~100-~165 AD) and others.
4. NOTE: We can see that acceptance was a serious matter. As we noted, they were never strongly rejected, just SLOW to be accepted. Because of this there is great reason to have confidence in the books that comprise the New Testament.
f. NOTE: The 27 books of the New Testament are almost universally accepted by all professing Christians (including Catholics - both Roman and Orthodox, Protestants and simple Bible believing Christians). In fact it is only critics of Christianity and the most liberal of theologians that reject or add to this list.

III. What about books not accepted?

a. Books rejected as Canon generally fell into two categories:
i. Those outright rejected by virtually everyone other than their authors (called Pseudepigrapha) which would include many of the
1. Gnostic gospels (The gospel of Thomas and the gospel of Peter) which promoted the doctrine of Gnosticism which John in his epistle rejected;
2. The gospel of the Ebionites – which stressed keeping the Law of Moses and that Jesus was adopted as God’s son at His baptism;
3. The gospel of Truth which was written by and promoted the doctrine of Valentinus.
These books (mostly narratives of Christ or an apostle) demonstrated an agenda contrary to established scripture. They also had dates much later than the apostolic era.
ii. Those described as apocryphal (accepted by some, but rejected by the majority). There were books written, some of them early enough to have been associated with the apostles or contemporaries of the apostles. Others, within a generation of that time. They were not outlandish like the ones listed above, but there were serious problems that caused them to not be accepted. Some of these included:
1. The Shepherd of Hermas – an allegory about a shepherd (Jesus) who gave moral guidance through visions and instructions to a man named Hermas. But it was too allegorical and dated in the 2nd century.
2. 1 Clement, a letter written to the Corinthians as mentioned above. It was believed written about 95-96 AD and thus fits the timeframe of inspiration, but there are things in the book that are questionable, such as reference to the phoenix as an actual living creature. Furthermore, a complete copy of the text was not available until 1873, MUCH TOO late to be considered as canon.
3. The Epistle of Barnabas (Also called Pseudo-Barnabas) is a book described as similar to Hebrews but filled with allegory and mystical content. Its writing was also late 1st century and it is doubtful that the author was the same Barnabas that accompanied Paul. Its content was strongly anti-Jewish to the point that it called many of the sacrifices and the temple were reliance upon an evil angel as opposed to God. As such its conclusions also conflict with Old Testament Canon AND New Testament teaching which, while it called for Jews to change, was not hostile to them.
4. Didache, also called, Teaching of the Twelve Apostles – written around 100-120 AD, was a work held in high regard by many early in the church and contained instructions similar to a manual for churches with instructions about order and practices. In addition to being written too late, the author was unknown. Also while mentioned by early “church fathers” it was lost for centuries. It was not rediscovered until 1873.
It also contains material not in accord to New Testament writings. For example: In this writing we find the earliest mention of baptism by a mode other than immersion. It instructed pouring upon the head 3 times if immersion was not possible.
5. The Epistle to the Laodiceans - an interesting letter that was not included because it was not discovered until the late 3rd or early 4th century and immediately questioned. But interestingly, because Paul mentioned a letter to Laodicea in Colossians 4:16, it was included for centuries in manuscripts and Bible, including 18 German Bibles until Luther’s translation, as well as the Latin Vulgate.
It is an interesting small epistle that contains nothing that cannot be found in other writings of Paul, BUT because of its late discovery which too easily could lend itself to being a counterfeit (i.e. someone decided to write it because they could).
But it is an interesting epistle of some 20 verses.
6. MANY others could be added to these, but they all failed for various reasons. A reading of any of these works shows WHY they are not included in canon. They are of a different character and of too much of a questionable nature and datings. IF you consider their consideration by the so-called “church fathers”, you will find their acceptance was only by a minority, and each by different authors. In other words, there was NO UNIVERSAL acceptance of these works.
They are NOT included in Canon for real reasons.
7. NOTE: the above works were referenced by two sources: [7] [8]
And thus we can see that the New Testament we have IS reliable and worthy of acceptance. There was also an apocrypha of the New Testament which is almost universally rejected as uninspired, though some of the works have some usefulness. Books of this nature include: Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul, Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, etc.
It is my hope that with confidence in the Bible before us, and even more than that is our willingness to obey what it teaches. Let us give consideration to these things. In our next lesson we will begin examining the process of translation.

[1] McDowell, Josh, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, pg. 37, Revised Edition, 1979
[2] Metzg.NT - Metzger, Bruce Manning. The Canon of the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
[3] Fisher, Milton, The Origin of the Bible, The Canon of the New Testament, Pp. 69-70, © 2003, Tyndale Publishing
[4] Ibid. Pg. 70
[5] Fisher, George Park, The Grounds of theistic and Christian belief, pg. 183, © 1883, Franklin Press, Boston, via

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