Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
Orthodox Jews often reject the New Testament because the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly declared themselves to be eternal, suggesting that nothing more could be added to them. Liberal scholars often reject limiting the New Testament to its twenty-seven books, because they believe there was other inspirational Christian literature from the early years of Christianity equally worthy of inclusion. Just what factors were involved in the formation of the New Testament canon and how legitimate were they?
It is true that God's law and God's word last forever. But the Old Testament prophets also recognize incompleteness in his revelation. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the clearest and most extensive text to predict a coming new covenant, but many texts look forward to a new, Messianic age. Since the Mosaic covenant led to the writing of one "testament" (a word that in the Greek—diathêkê—could also mean "covenant"), it was logical to expect a written "testament" to accompany the new covenant. At least that is how Tertullian argued near the end of the second century.
But what was the process that led to this New Testament? Already in 2 Peter 3:16 we read of Paul's "letters," perhaps implying that they had begun to be collected together still in the first century. By the second century, the four Gospels were circulating together at times. (By about 180, a harmony of the four Gospels had appeared.) The oldest nearly complete New Testament manuscripts still in existence date from the fourth century, but their predecessors probably emerged already in the third. Initially, there was not full agreement on the order of the books. It was natural to group the Gospels together and the letters of Paul together. Revelation naturally came at the end of the collection because it was the last one written and it also discussed the last things of human history. Acts, Hebrews, and the General Epistles "floated" around in several places before they finally settled into where we find them today.1
The rationale for the existing order would appear to have been as follows. The Gospels came first because they are biographies of the life of Jesus, the founder of the Christian religion, who is the reason there is any New Testament in the first place. The order of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John probably corresponds to the order in which several Church Fathers believed they were written, though Matthew was regularly credited with having written something in a Hebrew dialect, probably less than a full-fledged Gospel. Even if Mark was written first, as most modern scholars have good reason to believe, Matthew could easily have been put first because it is the most Jewish of the four Gospels and has the greatest number of links with the Old Testament.
Acts comes next because it treats the generation of Jesus' followers immediately after his death and resurrection. Then come all the epistles, grouped together, beginning with the letters of Paul, the most influential of all the first-generation Christians. Except when two epistles are adjacent because they have the same addressees, the letters of Paul are arranged in descending order of length. (Galatians also disrupts the pattern, being just slightly shorter than Ephesians.) First came letters to churches and then letters to individuals, each arranged according to this pattern. The authorship of Hebrews has been uncertain from its initial publication. Because some thought it Pauline, while many did not, it was place immediately next to the Pauline epistles but not inserted where it would have gone, according to its length, within that collection. The so-called General Epistles were apparently arranged in the order of the importance or prominence of their authors in the first decades of the Jesus movement. Although Peter, as the first bishop of Rome in the 60s, would eventually eclipse James, the half-brother of Jesus, in the eyes of later Christians, James was the lead elder of the mother church in Jerusalem in its early days. Peter follows as a close second; then John (Peter's "sidekick" in several contexts in Acts), and finally Jude, the least prominent of the four.2
The exact twenty-seven books were not finally agreed on until Athanasius' Easter-time bishop's encyclical letter in A.D. 367, and this canon was formally ratified only in 393 at the Council of Hippo and in 397 by the Council of Carthage. Although much evidence from antiquity is simply lost forever, the process leading up to the finalization of the canon may be discerned at least in part. Mid-second-century heretical offshoots of Christianity, most notably Gnosticism and Marcionism (a view that pitted the evil God of the Old Testament against the loving Jesus of the Christians), provoked the more faithful heirs of the apostolic tradition to begin itemizing the documents they believed were uniquely inspired and authoritative. Growing Roman persecution, particularly by the third century, at times meant that Christians had to decide, quite literally, which books they were willing to die for.
No debate seems ever to have surrounded the acceptance of the four Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen letters with Paul's name in their opening lines, 1 Peter, or 1 John. The other seven books that eventually "made it" into the New Testament had various questions swirl around them. Did Paul write Hebrews or was it someone else? Does James contradict Paul on the role of faith and works? Was 2 Peter genuinely Petrine, given its dramatically different style and contents from 1 Peter? Were 2 and 3 John and Jude long enough and significant enough to merit inclusion? And just how was Revelation to be interpreted anyway?
Despite these questions, each of these seven books was eventually accepted. The late second-century Muratorian canon listed 21 books; early in the third century, Tertullian noted 22. About the same time, Origen mentions all 27, but observes that six are disputed. Eusebius, in the early fourth century, also lists all 27 and quotes Origen's references to doubts over certain ones.
At the same time, a handful of additional documents were occasionally proposed for acceptance as on a par with the other 27. The generally orthodox Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas were the two most frequently suggested, though not nearly as often as even the disputed books out of the 27. The church eventually rejected the Epistle of Barnabas in part because of its anti-Semitic content. Both letters, moreover, reflected second-century writings from the collection of works known as the Apostolic Fathers that elsewhere seemed to be conscious of originating from a later date and with lesser authority than the first-century documents that now comprise our New Testament.
Indeed, three criteria prevailed for sifting the canonical from the non-canonical. First and foremost was apostolicity—authorship by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle—which thus, for all practical purposes, limited the works to the first hundred years or so of Christian history. Second was orthodoxy or non-contradiction with previously revealed Scripture, beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians came to call the Old Testament. Finally, the early church used the criterion of catholicity—universal (or at least extremely widespread) usage and relevance throughout the church. This excluded, for example, the Gnostic writings, which were accepted only in the sects from which they emanated.3
Modern historical revisionists often use language like that of "suppression" or "censorship" to speak of the emerging Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic approach to extra-canonical documents, as if there once was a time when some group of so-called Christians somewhere had agreed on a larger canon only to have the majority of believers whittle their canon down. Nothing could be further from the truth. The canon gradually grew up from smaller collections. It is possible that some Gnostic sect somewhere put forward some of their unique documents as on a par with Scripture, but, if so, that evidence has been lost. What remains suggests that although they played a special role in the communities of those who created them, the Gnostic literature was never put forward for formal inclusion in a finalized canon of the New Testament.4
While Catholics and Protestants to this day disagree on the canon of the Old Testament, both branches of Christianity along with Eastern Orthodoxy agree on the contents of the New. For sixteen centuries there has been no significant controversy within Christianity regarding the extent of the New Testament canon. Christians are on solid ground in affirming that these twenty-seven books belong in the New Testament and that other ancient writings were excluded for good reason.
1For the full story, consult Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999).
2A work that deals more with this question of order than most do is William R. Farmer with Denis M. Farkasfalvy, The Formation of the New Testament Canon (New York: Paulist, 1983).
3For the historical developments and factors involved, see esp. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 117-269. A fourth criterion was certainly the witness of the Holy Spirit, but, because of the more subjective nature of this criterion, competing claims of reliance on the Spirit yielding contradictory conclusions have always required more objective criteria by which to test them.
4For a complete presentation of the known lists of books for inclusion or exclusion from the New Testament in the early centuries of Christian history, see Lee M. McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 591-97.