Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin

Chapter 17
The Formation of the New Testament Canon

[p.400]The Christian canon,1 the New Testament, was not formed immediately after the death of Jesus and his disciples. In the early years of the church the living apostles with their oral traditions were the bridge between Jesus and his followers who, expecting his imminent return, did not depend on the written word. When the New Testament books were written, perhaps because of geographical as well as chronological distance, they had a long history which began with the original documents, the autographs, and extended to their eventual canonization. They were used in the various early church communities for over a half century before they were collected, edited, and finally adopted by the emerging church as authoritative and binding. The writing had extended over at least fifty years, and their canonization was a gradual process from at least the last quarter of the first century to the end of the second century.

Two major crises helped shape the canon to its present form. First, the threat and fact of persecution resulted in the development of a strong martyr theme in the Christian literature of the first three centuries. Second, schism within the church produced a diversity of Christian thought about God, Christ, and man.

Precedent for accepting certain select writings as holy scripture, inspired by God, was already well established in the Jewish cultural and religious tradition. The Pentateuch, the so-called five books of Moses or books of the Law, was probably recognized as [p.401]sacred scripture and thus normative for Jewish belief and practice as early as 400 BCE.2 The prophetic books, the Prophets, and historical writings regarded as prophetic were apparently regarded as divinely inspired at least as early as 200 BCE. The third part of the Jewish scripture, the Hagiographa or the Writings as it was later designated in the Talmud, was not included in the canonical writings until sometime between 90 and 100 CE, when a Jewish synod in Jamnia recognized a tripartite canon. Whether this recognition was an official action is a matter of some disagreement among competent scholars. But the Jewish historian Josephus, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (probably about 90 CE) in his essay “Against Apion,” described Jewish religious literature by referring to the five books of Moses, thirteen prophetic books, and four books of hymns and precepts, all of which he regarded as divine.3

It is possible to identify several early Jewish “canons” in addition to those of Josephus and Jamnia. The “Qumran canon” was reclaimed from the books and fragments of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, and an “Alexandrian canon,” which is believed to have been the basis of the Greek Septuagint, included several apocryphal books accepted by the Catholic church but not regarded as canonical in Judaism or Protestantism.

The Torah and the Prophets as the Original Christian Canon

Only the Law and the Prophets were considered sacred scripture by Jesus and the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Christians referred to the “Old Testament” probably to contrast the old covenant between God and the Hebrews with the new covenant which they believed was established by God through Jesus Christ.

The earliest Palestinian Christians, who were believing, practicing Jews, quite naturally regarded the Jewish scripture as sacred [p.402]literature. That they did is evident from countless references to it in their writings, especially in the books that were eventually to become the accepted Christian canon. The traditional biblical idea of covenant as a contract or agreement between God and Israel, involving Israel’s faith in God and his promises of Israel’s destiny as a nation, became for the Christians the historic foundation of the new covenant. The prophet Jeremiah had looked forward to a new covenant saying, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts” (Jer 31:33). In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul had referred to the veil of the “old covenant,” which can be removed only through Christ (2 Cor 3:14.). And the anonymous letter to the Hebrews contains an extended discussion of the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant, interpreted as a covenant based on the Gospel of Christ. The first covenant was declared obsolete but under the new covenant, declared the Lord,

I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. (Heb 8:10f)

For Christians Jesus’s new Word given from the Mount eventually became the foundation of the new Covenant, set forth in the literature known as the New Testament.

In the period following the Jewish-Roman war and the destruction of Jerusalem, Jewish Christians became increasingly estranged from mainstream Jews. Their differences and enmities multiplied until, with the conversion of diaspora Jews and gentiles, the Christian community became less a Jewish sect and more a distinct religion. But Christianity remained moored to its Jewish foundations despite the efforts of some, especially the gnostic Christians, to uproot it. For the author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing probably about 80-90 CE, the new religion was to build on Jesus Christ as the new Word or Revelation from God. In the Epistle of Barnabas, written about 130 CE, the question of Christian independence from the Jewish religion was at a new level. Barnabas held that the Jews had lost the promise under the old covenant. [p.403]That promise, according to Barnabas, pointed to Jesus for its fulfillment, “Learn then, my children, … that Abraham, the first who enjoined circumcision, [was] looking forward in spirit to Jesus.”4 In his dialogue with the fictitious Jewish character Trypho, Justin Martyr referred to certain items in “your Scriptures” then added “or rather not yours, but ours.”5 Clearly, by this time (ca. 150 CE) Christian writers had appropriated the Jewish scripture, at least the Torah and Prophets, as their own.

As many scholars have pointed out, the process of appropriation of the Old Testament was made easier through the Christian adoption of the Greek translation, the Septuagint, as a sacred book. This volume is referred to as the LXX because of the tradition, undoubtedly erroneous, that seventy (or seventy-two) elders translated it from the Hebrew. The Septuagint was translated over a period of years, beginning around the middle of the third century BCE, especially for the Jewish colonies in Egypt. It was widely used in the Diaspora, where Greek was the most commonly written language. It was the Bible of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo and apparently was the Bible of Paul and the Greek-speaking Christian communities of the first century.

Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE-ca. 40 CE), a Jew educated in Platonic and Stoic thought as well as in the Mosaic Law and tradition, vigorously advanced the thesis that the Hebrew scripture was consonant with important elements of Platonic and Stoic philosophy, the dominant intellectual forces of his time. To effect a synthesis of Plato and Moses, of Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion, as well as to better understand the scriptures, Philo enlisted the technique of allegorical interpretation, which was already popular in Greek rhetoric and Stoic literature. Allegorical interpretation assumes that important meanings lie hidden in the literal accounts of places, persons, and events, meanings too profound or dangerous to expose to the unsophisticated and literal-minded. In treating Genesis 2:10, for instance, Philo iden-[p.404]tified the four rivers that came from Eden as the cardinal Greek virtues of prudence, courage, self-mastery, and justice.6 He interpreted the event of the burning bush in Exodus as the suffering of those Israelites who were treated unjustly. As the bush was not consumed, so “the sufferers would not be destroyed by their aggressors.” He described the angel as a “symbol of God’s providence.”7 Philo’s allegorical method probably affected the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Christian writers commonly assumed that the Old Testament contained numerous passages in which hidden meanings referred to the coming of Jesus Christ. The Alexandrian Christian theologian Origen (185-254 CE), for instance, who was influenced by the Philonic school, provided clear examples of this method of interpretation when he admonished his readers to look for the soul and the spirit of the scripture, urging them to go beyond the literal letter of the word to the higher, divine meaning.8

Paul’s Letters and the Birth of the New Testament Canon

The missionary character of the early Christian movement was an important factor in the development of the canon. During the first century Christian missionaries were active throughout Asia Minor and Greece, making converts and establishing churches or congregations. These missionaries assumed responsibility for the communities of newly converted Christians and wrote letters to them for their edification and guidance. Paul, clearly the most prominent among the early evangelists, being separated from his congregations much of the time, wrote to them in response to their [p.405]questions, advising them on important issues, clarifying principles of belief and practice, and at times admonishing them for their behavior. There are no grounds for supposing, however, that Paul expected his letters to become the core of a new collection of sacred writings. His primary concern was the specific problems of the congregations which he had established. Nevertheless, some of his later disciples valued his letters enough to preserve and distribute them to other congregations. Eventually they found their way throughout much of the church. Clement of Rome (ca. 96 CE), for example, writing to the church in Corinth almost forty years after Paul, reproached the Corinthian Christians for their factiousness and dissent and urged them to “Pick up the letter of the blessed apostle Paul. What was the primary thing he wrote to you? … To be sure, under the Spirit’s guidance, he wrote to you about himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had formed cliques.”9 In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Ignatius (ca. 98-117 CE) spoke highly of Paul: “You have been initiated into the [Christian] mysteries with Paul, a real saint and martyr, who deserves to be congratulated. When I come to meet God may I follow in his footsteps, who in all his letters mentions your union with Christ Jesus.”10 These passages are evidence that thirty or forty years beyond the time of Paul, leaders in the Christian community were consulting his writings on matters of church practice and belief. It is unlikely that by this time Paul’s letters had anything like the status of inspired scripture. Nevertheless, they were highly prized for their instructional and devotional value and eventually were collected to form a Pauline literary corpus that became a basic element of the Christian canon.

The New Testament document 2 Peter, probably written well into the second century, contains the clearest early witness to the beginnings of a Christian canon. It refers to Paul and to Paul’s letters but also alludes to “other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:15f). The author knows [p.406]of the synoptic tradition about the event of Jesus’s Transfiguration (2 Pt 1:16-18. This seems to suggest that from the earliest stages of the development of the canon, there began to emerge a two-part tradition about Jesus: the apostolic tradition about the risen Christ founded upon the vision of Paul and the tradition about Jesus’ glorification in the synoptic Gospels.

The Gospels

The tradition of the Gospels developed gradually. Probably in the beginning this tradition, reporting the sayings of Jesus and describing his miracles and especially his passion, was transmitted orally. Indeed, some early Christian leaders preferred the oral tradition, a living witness, to the written word. Papias,11 reported in the writings of the early church historian Eusebius, exhibits such a view:

But if I met with anyone who had been a follower of the elders anywhere, I made it a point to inquire what were the declarations of the elders. What was said by Andrew, Peter or Philip. What by Thomas, James, John, Matthew, or any other of the disciples of our Lord … for I do not think that I derived so much benefit from books as from the living voice of those that still survive.12

At first the Gospels probably were circulated without the titles which attributed authorship to Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Ignatius wrote to the church in Philadelphia, “To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him.”13 The emphasis in Ignatius and later in Irenaeus was upon the one Gospel of Jesus Christ; the individual Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were regarded as aspects or forms of the one Gospel. Also, it is likely that during this early stage each church had its own particular Gospel. Some scholars, for example, hold [p.407]the view that Mark came from the church in Rome and Matthew from Antioch and that for a time there was no disposition to bring these writings together. As each Gospel gained in reputation, copies were circulated for more general use in the various churches. Later collections were made and titles added, probably for the purpose of distinguishing the various Gospels.

Concern for unity among the churches was undoubtedly a major factor accounting for collecting the four Gospels into one literary tradition. Gathering the various Gospels into a unity was part of an attempt to eliminate the prejudice against one or other of the Gospels and thus remove a potentially divisive factor in the church. This was especially important in the acceptance of the Gospel of John. Initially, there seems to have been considerable resistance in the West to the Fourth Gospel, in part because it was fundamentally different in character from the synoptic Gospels and from the oral tradition concerning Jesus which the churches in the west had inherited. The inclusion of John’s Gospel in the collection of four probably gained for it a wider circulation and eventually a general acceptance beyond the eastern churches. M. Werner in his work on the development of Christian dogma holds that it was the peculiar theological character of John’s Gospel—its gnostic-like interpretation of Paul’s thought—which many early Christians found objectionable. But it was the affinity of John’s spiritual-sacramental doctrine of salvation to the Logos-Christology which ultimately led to the popularity of John and to its high place in the canon.14 It is significant that Clement of Alexandria ascribed to John’s Gospel a spiritual quality and a higher status than he attributed to the synoptic Gospels, which he regarded as portraits of the physical-temporal Christ. Of John’s special place in the canon, he writes, “But John, the last of all, seeing that what was corporeal was set forth in the Gospels, on the entreaty of his intimate friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”15

[p.408]The earliest references to one of the four Gospels as scripture comes from an anonymous Christian sermon dated in the middle of the second century known as Clement’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. The reference to “another Scripture” quotes from either Matthew 9:13 or Mark 2:17, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” and shows that he accepted a Christian Gospel as scripture.16 Justin, who was martyred in Rome ca. 167 CE, elaborated on proper Christian worship and in doing so recommended reading from the “memoirs composed by them [the Apostles], which are called Gospels.”17 From this passage we learn that the Gospels, which originally were apparently circulated anonymously, were in Justin’s time claiming apostolic authorship and authority.

Persecution and Martyrdom

There can be no doubt that persecution was a critical problem for the early church.18 The early Christian community, a minority group unpopular in the Roman empire, was from its beginning faced with dangers of both persecution and legal prosecution. Survival by conformity to state demands and the threat of eventual failure as an autonomous religious community was one of the most critical issues confronting the early church.19

[p.409]According to Christian tradition, the church survived ten persecutions. Only a few of these appear to have been organized attempts by the Roman state to eradicate the entire Christian community.20 Opposition to Christians usually amounted to severe public disapproval, but at times it was organized prosecution. The state claimed to have a legal basis for discrimination, since Roman law declared religious cults under certain circumstances to be illegal. Christians were often suspected of atheism because they refused to use images in their worship and rituals. They were sometimes accused of practicing sexual immoralities and cannibalism in the name of religion. Most important, because they refused homage to the emperor, a basic civic duty in the state religion, and because they objected to military service, they were considered unpatriotic and seditious. Also, extreme ascetics were despised as religious fanatics.

The Roman government attempted periodically to enforce its demands upon an unyielding and expanding Christian minority, and Christian leaders in turn sought to control the responses of their followers, to firm up their loyalty and devotion to Christian values even at the cost of their lives. These circumstances account for the emergence of the literature of the martyr, the martyrology, which became a popular Christian literary type in the second and third centuries.

The martyr motif began as early as the composition of the Gospels. Jesus’s dignity during his trial and his composure on the cross are salient features of martyrology. These elements of the passion story as related especially in Mark suggest that Mark shaped his account as a martyrology. The passion and resurrection narratives were apparently meant to be the focal point of Mark’s Gospel, for they constitute more than half of the total work.

Martyr interest, however, is not confined to the Gospel of Mark. The other Gospels, especially John, contain characteristic martyr elements. Jesus’s voluntary death, the attention given to [p.410]Peter’s denial and grief, and the predictions of persecution are all elements of martyrdom. The pastoral letters (1 Tm 6:12f; 2 Tm 2:11-13, 3:10-12, 4:7f), 1 Peter (1 Pt 3:14, 4:12-16), the Revelation to John (Rv 6:9, 7:13f), and Hebrews (Heb 2:10, 6:12, 12:7-11) all seem to be consciously concerned with persecution and the possibility of martyrdom. Stephen, probably the second great martyr prototype, conforms to the pattern set by Jesus. The account of Stephen’s death in Acts of the Apostles was probably intended to fix the form and to be a prime example of a Christian martyrology. The act of martyrdom was assumed to be in full accord with the Gospels, meaning that it conformed to the pattern set by Jesus as recorded in the passion narratives. He was the supreme exemplar of religious commitment and faith and loyalty even to death.

The promise of special rewards was a principal motivation for martyrdom. Martyrs were guaranteed forgiveness of sins and resurrection and promised special blessings of position and privilege in the life to come. They were placed in the apostolic line of succession to receive visions and prophetic gifts of the Spirit. They were even described as great athletes participating in contests like those performed in the Greco-Roman stadium, with the Holy Spirit as their trainer. It is not surprising, therefore, that a cult of Christian martyrs arose in the middle of the second century. Martyrs were venerated as heroes. Various parts of their bodies—bones, hair, blood, and clothing—were often made the centerpiece of Christian worship. These relics were believed by many Christians to possess magical powers.

A sizable body of martyr literature emerged during this period.21 Unfortunately, the attitudes of many would-be martyrs became psychopathic. Voluntary martyrdom became such a problem that some of the early fathers, noting the alarming trend, strongly advised against it. It is to the credit of the Christian leadership that while the persecution-martyr theme was prominent in the literature of the New Testament, none of several major martyrologies was finally canonized.

Schism in the Church

[p.411]Threats from within the Christian church as well as from outside contributed significantly to the establishment of the canon. These were especially threats of heresy, of schism, and anarchy. The emergence of Montanist and Gnostic Christian sects was a major factor in this development. Montanism, one of the earliest schismatic heresies in the ancient church, began in Phrygia in Asia Minor in the middle of the second century, presumably near where Paul had established his congregations in Colossae and Laodicea. It took its name from its founder, Montanus, a former priest of the cult of Cybele who had converted to Christianity.

The historian of Christian theology J. Pelikan holds that the growing secularization within the church and the rigidity of its polity and institutional form account for the birth of the Montanist movement. The early Christian’s hope for salvation based on the doctrine of an imminent eschatology had declined and with it the sense of need for extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit.22

The Montanist Christians sought to restore to the church the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, especially the gift of prophecy. In accord with this, Montanus and other charismatic leaders, including the prophetesses, Maximilia and Priscilla, made extravagant claims that they possessed Christ’s spirit and received special revelations and visions. That they reached an extreme state of heresy is evidenced by their claim to be at one with the Father, the Son, and the Paraclete. This kind of charismatic prophecy seriously threatened the stability of the church. Combined with the Montanist belief in the imminent end of the age and in the doctrine of the Second Coming, this undermined the church’s institutional movement toward order and guarantees of continuity.23

As Pelikan has pointed out, it was impossible for the church to repudiate outright the Montanists’ emphasis on the gift of the spirit of prophecy. Yet if orderly development of the church was to proceed, firm guidelines about claims to the operations of the [p.412]Spirit were required. The church turned to its historical past, to its tradition, and particularly to apostolicity for the solution to this problem. The apostolic canon of sacred literature as well as the apostolic creed and apostolic episcopacy were adopted as the final standards of orthodoxy.24


The development of the Christian canon is often dated from the literary collection made by the Christian gnostic Marcion (d. ca. 160). Although the movement toward the rudiments of a canon was already underway well before Marcion’s time, he deserves special attention as a central figure in advancing the process of canonization.25 Indeed some scholars have suggested that the idea of the New Testament as distinct from the Old may have come from Marcion’s rejection of Jewish scripture.

Marcion, the son of a bishop in Pontus, a Roman province in northern Asia Minor, went to Rome ca. 140 CE, where he undertook to restore the original gospel of Christ based on the teachings of Paul. He was firmly convinced that Paul’s letters contained the essentials of the Christian Gospel—love, the spirit, and salvation by grace—which he believed had been overlooked and diminished in the doctrines and preachments of his time, resulting in a reversion toward Jewish legalism.

The view that Marcion’s determination to sever Christianity from its ancestral roots in Judaism and from the Old Testament was the result of the disastrous outcome of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 135 CE has some merit. Many Jews, including the celebrated Rabbi Akiba, believed that Bar Kokhba was the long-[p.413]awaited Jewish Messiah. This claim and the ensuing rebellion undoubtedly raised important questions in the minds of thinking Christians concerning their own claims about Jesus as the Christ. The emperor Hadrian executed the rabbis who supported the rebellion, and all Jews were banished from Judea. The Roman city of Aelia Capitolina, built on the site of the old Jerusalem, was officially declared off-limits to Jews. As William Farmer has pointed out, not since the war of 66-70 CE culminating in the dismantling of the Jewish state had the Gospel of Paul been so clearly and convincingly vindicated. Marcion probably went to Rome supposing that both Judaism and Jewish Christianity were finished. The Christian church must now break completely with its Jewish roots and establish itself solely on the basis of a relationship to God and Christ as understood and proclaimed by Paul.26

Marcion objected to the practice of Christian leaders who regarded the Hebrew Bible as sacred scripture for the followers of Jesus. Influenced by Paul’s writings, he rejected the Jewish commitment to Torah, with its emphasis on Law, which based salvation on works and merit. He found the conceptions of deity in the historical books of the Old Testament, where Yahweh often appears as a vengeful and tribal warlord, inconsistent with Christ’s loving and merciful God. These Hebraic conceptions, Marcion believed, lacked the essential attributes of a redeeming, savior God: goodness, mercy, omniscience, and impartiality in his judgment on mankind.

Marcion held that the God of grace and love was unknown in the world until Christ brought God’s free gift of salvation for all humanity. For him Christ was the son of God, but his view of Christ was docetist: Christ never received a body of flesh but only “seemed” or “appeared” to have a bodily form. Marcion’s position was based on a Gnostic view that the earth was created by an inferior deity from evil matter.27 According to Marcion man had [p.414]to be saved from his condition of bondage or entanglement in the evil materiality of the real world. Salvation was the release of man’s spiritual nature from the material body, the flesh. He rejected belief in the resurrection of the body and apparently assumed that his doctrine was entirely consistent with Paul’s emphasis upon the Spirit and salvation as release from the body of flesh. Like Paul, Marcion held that salvation comes through faith, not by esoteric knowledge as with the Gnostics or works as with the Jews and Jewish Christians.

Having rejected the Old Testament as scripture, Marcion replaced it with his own collection of Christian writings, which included a revised and corrected edition of Luke’s Gospel28 and the ten epistles of Paul. This collection included only the now canonical Pauline and deutero-Pauline letters. The Pastorals were not included, presumably because Marcion did not recognize them as authentic to Paul. His entire approach to salvation was affected by Paul’s doctrine of faith and grace. Marcion also included in his collection a volume of his own, the Antitheses. This book is no longer extant, but Marcion’s view can be reconstructed from Tertullian’s work, which contains his refutation of Marcion’s doctrines which he regarded as heretical.

Acts of the Apostles

It is thought by some scholars that the opposition generated by Marcion’s elimination of the Hebrew Bible was a determining factor in the elevation of the Christian writings to the status of sacred literature comparable to the Old Testament. Marcion’s attempt to establish a Christian canon posed a serious threat to leading Christians in Rome, who felt compelled to set their own standards on what should and should not be accepted as holy scripture. N. Perrin suggests that many orthodox Christian leaders rejected Marcion’s views as heretical but nevertheless adopted his division of the Christian scriptures as “gospel” and “apostle.”29 [p.415]Presumably, then, it was the Christian community in Rome which first contended for adding other Gospels and other letters to Luke and the letters of Paul.

Those scholars may be correct who hold that this was the first occasion for including the Pastoral Letters as Pauline. Probably they were included as authentic to Paul because they expressed an emerging institutional interest in Paul as a churchman, a position which countered the primary emphasis of Marcion’s interpretation of Paul as a Gnostic-type Christian. Because of this threat the church felt compelled to interpret Paul through the medium of the Pastoral Letters. This meant, as M. Werner points out, that in the church’s interpretation, the real Paul was to become partially concealed behind the Pastoral Letters. So, also, the synoptic Gospels were eclipsed behind the Gospel of John, which was a product of the new theological perspective emerging in the post-apostolic period.30 Further, it is the contention of several scholars that Acts of the Apostles came into prominence among Christian documents at this point in the second century as the bridge between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles. It was written specifically to show that harmony existed among all of the early apostles and to establish the fact that Paul himself acknowledged the authority of the apostles of the Jerusalem church. Acts is also the link which established the unity among the four Gospels and the Pauline letters as well as between Paul and the General or Catholic Epistles purportedly written by Jesus’s other disciples—Peter, James, and John.

Undoubtedly Farmer is correct that while the four Gospels represent the apostolic witness to the death and resurrection of Christ, they did not do justice to the full importance of the apostolic tradition in the church’s account of its origins. This was the contribution of the Acts of the Apostles.31 Acts explained how the gospel, which began with Jesus and his disciples, was perpetuated in Paul’s proclamation about Christ. It established the historical connection between Gospel and apostle and accomplished the unity of the [p.416]church’s tradition. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (ca. 130-202), more than any other church father accorded Acts of the Apostles a central position in the canon. Irenaeus was committed to Peter as represented in his speeches in Acts and to Paul as interpreted in Acts and in the Pastoral Letters, which he believed to be Pauline.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus vigorously promoted the unity of the Gospels against heretical Christian groups who favored one or other of the Gospels. For example, the Ebionites used only the Gospel of Matthew, Marcion left out portions of the Gospel of Luke, and Gnostic Christians misused the Gospels of Mark and John in order to demonstrate their own doctrinal positions. For Irenaeus, “The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are.” He argued that since there were four zones in the world and four general covenants given to mankind, there must be four forms of the one Gospel. Since this was so, those Christian groups were foolish, even audacious, who changed the pattern of the Gospel and presented either more or less than the four Gospels. In his mind the four Gospels were one Gospel of Christ.32 With Irenaeus, the acceptance of the four-fold Gospel to head the list of New Testament books became a fact. Probably at this point it became necessary for the first time to separate Luke’s Gospel from his second volume, Acts of the Apostles. Thereafter, Acts was placed between the Gospels and Paul to unite the four Gospels with all of the apostolic writings, including Paul and the General or Catholic Letters.

Irenaeus was responding to the need for unity and a single Gospel within the Christian community. Eventually, such impetus toward unity led to the concept of a Christian canon separate from the Jewish scripture. It led also to the Roman church’s determination to include other documents than those in Marcion’s collection and yet to set limits which would exclude Gnostic additions to the body of Christian literature. The claim to apostolic authorship and authority emerged as the test of orthodoxy for documents designated as sacred literature. Irenaeus was the key figure in the development of the apostolic tradition. He maintained that the [p.417] gospel was first preached by the apostles of Jesus, then later by God’s will handed down “in Writing” as the foundation of faith. According to Irenaeus, each writer-apostle was perfect in knowledge through the Holy Spirit. Thus, each of the four Gospels was equal in its possession of the word of God.

So Matthew among the Hebrews issued a Writing of the gospel in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the Church. After their decease Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what Peter had preached. Then Luke, the follower of Paul, recorded in a book the gospel as it was preached by him. Finally John, the disciple of the Lord. … himself published the Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia. All of these handed down to us that there is one God … and one Christ the Son of God.33

The tradition of apostolic writings and their truths regarding God and Christ, which had come down from the apostles, was found in every church. But significantly Irenaeus cited the church in Rome as the primary example in the preservation of that tradition. Irenaeus referred to it as “that very great, oldest, and well-known Church, founded and established in Rome” by Peter and Paul, whose faith had come down through the succession of bishops. The church at Rome was preeminent among all the churches, since “the apostolic tradition is preserved in it by those from everywhere.”34 For Irenaeus the issue of apostolicity went beyond merely determining the historical authenticity of particular documents bearing the names of Peter, James, and John. The Holy Spirit directed the church in its judgments about which books were apostolic. Ultimately, Irenaeus held, the tradition handed down is sufficient even without the writings of the apostles. He recited the case of many barbarian converts who have “salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper and ink.”35

[p.418]The Apocryphal Writings and the Traditional Canon

Three observations seem relevant at this point: First, the church produced the literature of the New Testament, not the reverse, that the New Testament produced the church. The church did not grow out of a literary movement, notwithstanding the importance of the literature to its integrity, strength, and growth. Second, there was nothing inevitable about the shape that the New Testament eventually assumed. The canon might have developed in a variety of ways, depending upon varying circumstances. Adolf Harnack suggests, for instance, that there may have been as many as seven different hypothetical constructs which could have led to a different collection and arrangement of sacred writings.36 Third, there were many more documents produced in the church than were finally included in the canon. Oscar Cullmann’s comment that “generally speaking, the New Testament canon was not formed by addition, as some may think, but by elimination” is an apt description of what occurred.37 Besides letters and apocalypses, a number of Gospels were written in the first two centuries which were never canonized. While complete copies are no longer extant, some are available in fragmentary form. Among the most important are the Gospels of the Ebionites, the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Nazaraeans, and a Gospel of Peter. Although exact dating is problematical, many are of the opinion that these were produced during the first half of the second century. Among these “apocryphal” writings are some deserving not only study but actual use as religious documents. Still there is general agreement that the eventual canonization of the present New Testament, bypassing a wealth of extant early literature, is evidence of the good judgment of the Christian congregations and their leaders.

The Gospel of Peter dates from the middle of the second century. The Gospel of Thomas, now available among the Nag Hammadi documents discovered in 1945, dates from ca. 140 CE [p.419]and contains a collection of the sayings of Jesus believed to be founded upon an earlier source. The Gospel of the Ebionites is apparently an abridged form of the Gospel of Matthew. It was used by Jewish Christians, called “Ebionites,” who maintained that Jesus’s sonship was established at the coming of God’s Spirit at his baptism. They rejected the doctrine of the virgin birth. The Gospel of the Nazaraeans, also apparently based in part on Matthew’s Gospel, was reported to have been circulated among some Syrian Jewish Christian churches.38 The Gospels of Thomas and Peter reflect a gnostic influence that exceeds that found in the four canonical Gospels, even the strong gnostic element in the Fourth Gospel.

Although acceptance of the present four Gospels seems to have been undisputed by the latter half of the second century, other gospels continued to be used to some extent in various Christian communities. Clement of Alexandria, for example, indicated that the gospels of the Hebrews and the Egyptians enjoyed limited popularity in several churches in his day (ca. 200).

By the middle of the second century many letters, sermons, and treatises of the early church fathers as well as Gospels were regarded as worthy of special use in the church. The eventual verdict, however, denied them canonical status. Known since the seventeenth century as the Apostolic Fathers, these writings include documents from Rome, from Asia Minor, and Egypt. First Clement (ca. 95) and a Christian apocalypse called the Shepherd of Hermas were sent from the church in Rome. The seven letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a letter to the Philippians from Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna ca. 120, and a document called the Martyrdom of Polycarp were sent from the church in Smyrna in Asia Minor. The Epistle of Barnabas, so-called Second Clement, one of the earliest examples of a Christian sermon, and the Didache, a manual of instruction sometimes referred to as the [p.420]Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, came from Alexandria in Egypt. Some of these documents were undoubtedly serious competitors for adoption as holy scripture. The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and 1 Clement, for example, seem to have been accepted by Clement of Alexandria as deserving at least quasi-canonical status.

The Collections

The situation with respect to canonization apparently remained somewhat fluid until the last quarter of the second century. But even after that there was no general agreement among all of the churches as to just which documents were inspired and therefore to be regarded as sacred. At this time three classes of documents had come into view: First, those which made up much of the present canon, the four Gospels, Acts, and the thirteen letters claiming Pauline authorship. Second, some documents or books whose authority at first was challenged but were later accepted into the canon—Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, Jude and 2 Peter. Some scholars are inclined to place 1 Peter and 1 John and perhaps the Revelation to John in this second category. The third class included documents which initially had garnered favored status but which were finally recommended for reading but rejected from the canon. Among these were those referred to by M. S. Enslin as the “more fluid”: the Gospel of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, 1 Clement, and 2 Clement.39

In response to the challenge of orthodoxy primarily from Marcion and the Christian gnostics, the church in Rome declared that twenty-two books were binding upon faith and were the authorized guide to Christian worship. These were to be the authority in all doctrinal controversies. The earliest extant list of New Testament writings, known as the Muratorion canon, was published by Ludovico Muratori in 1740. This list, usually dated from the late second century, is a significant indicator of what was regarded as canonical by the Roman church of that period. It included all of the books of the present New Testament except James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Hebrews, and 3 John. Included in the canon were the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. [p.421]The Shepherd of Hermas was rejected as too recent. The Muratorion canon is believed by some scholars to have been the work of Hippolytus (ca. 170-ca. 236). Thus for all practical purposes, it would seem that the church had at least an unofficial canon by approximately the end of the second century. Yet even beyond that time the situation was not completely stabilized. Later, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) considered Hebrews to be a part of the Pauline writings. Also, he included the letters of Barnabas and Clement of Rome, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and a document called the Preaching of Peter, which is no longer extant. Clement’s collection of sacred writings may have included as many as thirty books. The status of Hebrews, the Revelation to John, James, 2 Peter, Jude, and 3 John was not finally settled until the time of Constantine in the fourth century (306-337).

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (ca. 296-373), listed in an Easter Letter the authoritative writings of both the Old and the New Testaments. His list of Christian documents agrees with the twenty-seven today included in the New Testament. “These,” he said, “are fountains of salvation. … In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take aught from these.”40 This position was dogmatized by the council at Carthage held in 419 CE: “besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture.”41

The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) was a pivotal event in the history of the canon. The decisions of this council represent for at least a majority of Christian churches in the West the closing of the canon. However, the diversity with respect to the names and the number of the New Testament books which prevailed in the pre-Constantine era was continued among the non-Chalcedon churches. For example, the Syrian Christian Church, which used [p.422]the Peshitta, a 5th-century Syriac version of the New Testament, included only twenty-two books; the Revelation to John, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude were not included.

Even as late as the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the canonical authority of some books was still in question. Erasmus, for example, raised questions about the status of Hebrews, the Revelation to John, and 3 John. The reformers raised questions about the canonicity of certain books and favored grading the level of divine inspiration of the books included in the canon. Martin Luther, for instance, had serious reservations about the inclusion of the Letter of James in the canon and concluded that Hebrews, Jude, and the Revelation were of secondary importance. In 1546 the Council of Trent settled the issue for the Roman church. After naming the books as they are now found in the established Old Testament and New Testament (and several Old Testament apocryphal books), the Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures reads,

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books [of both Old and New Testaments, including much of the Old Testament apocrypha] entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; … let him be anathema.42

The decisions of Trent on the New Testament canon were based primarily on traditional usage in the churches. Whether or not this forecloses the possibility of additions to the canon, resulting, for instance, from the discovery of a heretofore unknown authentic Pauline letter, is a matter of discussion among Catholic authorities.


[p.400]1. “Canon” derives from the Greek noun kanon which refers to the straightness of a rod. It refers to those documents which are accepted as the standard of faith, the norms for the religion, the guide to what is considered sacred and authoritative. To regard the New Testament collection of documents as “scripture” means to hold them as canon, normative for belief and practice. The Latin theologian Tertullian appears to have been the first writer to have used the term “New Testament” about 200. See A. F. J. Klijn, An Introduction to the New Testament (Leiden, 1967), 178.

2. On the canonization of the Old Testament, see “Canonical and Non-Canonical” in the Cambridge History of the Bible, 1:113-159, From the Beginnings to Jerome, ed. by P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge, 1970), and “The Canon of the Old Testament” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, 1968), 518-24.

3. Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, I:8.

4. “The Epistle of Barnabas,” chap. 9 in A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1956), 1:142.

5. “Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho,” chap. 29, in Roberts and Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:208f.

6. “Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis,” Bk. I, 63. This entire treatise clearly exhibits the attempt of Philo to achieve a synthesis of Platonism and the Hebrew scriptures through the use of allegory.

7. Philo Judaeus, “The Life of Moses,” I, 65-70. English trans. by F. H. Colson, in Philo, Vol. 6 (1935) of Loeb Classical Library. On the employment of allegorical exegesis by the rabbis and Philo and the influence of allegory on Paul and other New Testament writers, see H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, Vol. 1, Faith, Trinity, Incarnation (Cambridge, 1956), Chap. 2.

8. See Origen, De Principiis, Bk. IV, Ch. 1, 11, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., and Frederick Crombie, trans., Ante-Nicene Christian Library (Edinburgh, 1871), 10:299-303.

9. “The Letter of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, commonly called Clement’s First Letter,” 47:1-3, trans. and edited by C. C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 65.

10. “The Letters of Ignatius: Ephesians,” 12:2, trans. and edited by C. C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 91.

11. Papias was bishop in Hierapolis in Asia Minor ca. 130 CE.

12. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 3, Chap. 39. Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine (ca. 315-340), is often called the “Father of Church History.”

13. “The Letters of Ignatius: Philadelphians,” 8:2, trans. and edited by C. C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 110.

14. Martin Werner, The Formation of Christian Dogma. Trans. by S. G. F. Brandon (New York, 1957), 62f.

15. Fragments from Clement of Alexandria, the Hypotyposes, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 6, 14, in A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Second Century (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1956), 2:580.

16. “An Anonymous Sermon, Commonly Called Clement’s Second Letter to the Corinthians,” 2:4, trans. and edited by C. C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 194. Eusebius mentions a second letter ascribed to Clement, which he rejected as unauthentic.

17. “The First Apology of Justin,” 66, 67, trans. and edited by C. C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 286f.

18. W. R. Farmer refers to the New Testament as a martyr’s canon of scripture. The martyr tradition, he points out, traced through Origen, Hippolytus and Irenaeus, was exemplified in the martyrdom of Polycarp and Ignatius, and presumably included from the earlier period the models of martyrdom, Steven, Peter, and Paul and, most perfect of all, the martyrdom of Jesus. His conclusion is probably correct. Although persecution and Christian martyrdom do not answer fully the question of the origin of the canon, they do partially explain why the New Testament canon took the shape it did. William R. Farmer and Dennis M. Farkasfalvy, The Formation of the New Testament Canon, An Ecumenical Approach (New York, 1983), 39-41.

19. For a detailed discussion of the factors—religious, social and economic—which account for the conflict between the church and the Roman Empire in the first three centuries, see W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1965).

20. Apparently only the Roman emperors Decius (249-251), Valerian (253-260), and Diocletian (284-305) undertook action against Christians on this general scale. Earlier uprisings occurring in the reigns of Nero (54-68), Domitian (81-96), and Trajan (98-117), though terrible for many Christians, were local and not prolonged.

21. For a translation and brief analysis of twenty-eight of the most important texts of the martyr literature, see Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs: Introduction, Texts and Translations (Oxford, 1972).

22. See, for example, Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago, 1971), 1:98f.

23. For details of Montanist history, doctrines, and practices, see Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Ante-Nicene Christianity A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1950), 2:417-27.

24. J. Pelikan, op. cit., 105-107.

25. Some scholars, notably Adolf Harnack, have considered Marcion to be a major force in determining the make-up of the Christian canon. Others have regarded the thrust toward canonization as a gradual movement that antedated Marcion. See “The History of the Text and Canon of the New Testament to Jerome,” by C. S. C. Williams, in The West From the Fathers to the Reformation, Vol. 2 of The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge, 1969). See also Farmer and Farkasfalvy, The Formation of the New Testament Canon, and Hans von Copenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible, trans. by G. A. Baker (Philadelphia, 1972), 148-67. Von Copenhausen says, referring to Marcion, “whatever the facts, the first Christian canon remains his peculiar and unique creation, one in which neither churchman nor gnostic anticipated him” (p. 148).

26. Farmer and Farkasfalvy, The Formation of the New Testament Canon, 61-63.

27. Some scholars have argued that Marcion was not a thoroughgoing Gnostic but borrowed some Gnostic themes to advance the Christian gospel of love. That Marcion’s teaching omitted the mythological doctrines of the gnostics about the aeons and the mysteries of salvation seems to support this contention. His salvation was by faith alone, as in Paul, not by gnosis (knowledge) gained by secret rites available to a privileged few.

28. Marcion’s version of Luke’s Gospel omitted the story of Jesus’s miraculous birth.

29. This division, Perrin claims, “became as traditional for Christians as that of the division of the Jewish scriptures into ‘law,’ ‘prophets,’ and ‘writings.'” Norman Perrin, The New Testament, An Introduction (New York, 1974), 331.

30. See Martin Werner, Formation of Christian Dogma, 61-63.

31. See W. R. Farmer’s discussion of “The Conceptual Importance of Luke-Acts” in Farmer and Farkasfalvy, Formation of the New Testament Canon, 48f., 56-58. See also M. Werner, 64.

32. “Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 3, chap. 11:7f, trans. and edited by C. C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 381-83.

33. Ibid., 370.

34. Ibid., 372.

35. Ibid., 371-75. According to D. M. Farkasfalvy, it was Irenaeus’s doctrine of the Church which settled the issue of apostolicity, that in the last analysis it was the Holy Spirit which guided the Church “to pass correct judgment about the documents of faith.” Farmer and Farkasfalvy, The Formation of the New Testament Canon, 159f.

36. Adolf Von Harnack, The Origin of the New Testament, trans. by J. R. Wilkinson (London, 1925), 168-78.

37. Oscar Cullmann, The New Testament, trans. by Dennis Pardee (Philadelphia, 1968). This small but informative book should be read in its entirety.

38. For a discussion of the Jewish and Jewish Christian sects—the Ebionites and Nazarenes (or Nazorenes) and Naasanes—see A. Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. 3rd German edition by N. Buchanan (New York, 1958), 1:287-310. See also Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. by R. A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel, trans. by team from the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins (Philadelphia, 1971).

39. M. S. Enslin, Christian Beginnings (New York, 1956), 469.

40. See Athanasius’s Festal Letters, xxxix, written for Easter 367 CE in P. Schaff and H. Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1953), 4:551f.

41. From “The Code of Canons of the African Church,” Canon xxiv, in P. Schaff and H. Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1956), 14:453.

42. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 2, The Greek and Latin Creeds (Grand Rapids, 1977), 82.