The New Testament Canon

Peter Ballard,
Last updated: 4-Jul-96

Allegation: the Christian New Testament (NT) was not determined until the 4th century AD. Therefore it is a result of the 4th century church politics.

Short Answer:
From the earliest recorded days of the church, the church held to a canon almost identical to the final 27 books. The differences are very minor and have no impact on doctrine. The 4th Century Councils did not set the canon, but confirmed what was already church practice.

Long Answer:
The Christian New Testament (NT) was gradually determined by the church over several centuries. It was not set by a single council or person (unlike the Qur'an). The gradual unanimity that the church achieved is indicative of God's hand in guiding the process.

What is striking is the way that, although the church was slipping into certain non-Biblical practices during the second, third and fourth centuries, there is a complete absence of these in the NT. Such as:
- the veneration of Mary;
- the use of images or icons;
- over-emphasis on baptism and the Lord's Supper (communion);
- salvation by works;
- a rigid, almost authoritarian, church structure;
This is very strong evidence that the church did not corrupt the Bible!

The question arises: what did the church do during its first 3 centuries, if it didn't have a definitive scripture? The answer is that Christians' faith is in a person (Jesus Christ) not in a book. We are saved by our faith in Jesus and what he did, not by obedience to a set of laws.

Besides, it DID have, and use, Scripture, it just more generally relied on oral teaching. [NBD2 172]

Indeed, we can see the church using the apostles' writings as Scripture from a very early stage:


The charge is sometimes made that the church picked and chose between a large number of gospels to arrive at the four that exist in the New Testament. However the evidence is that the church consistently used these four and never any others. The natural conclusion is that these arose inside the orthodox church (founded by the apostles, and hence containing their writings), while unorthodox sects wrote their gospels to bolster their beliefs.

By the middle of the second century, the usage of the four gospels was unanimous in the church. This is evidenced in the writings of Tatian, Irenaeus, and possibly Justin Martyr [Patzia, 64]. There is no evidence of the church having widespread use of any other gospel.

{Posters to soc.religion.islam have mentioned the specific cases of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. These will be dealt with in more detail at a later date.}


Similarly, the 13 letters of Paul were gathered into a collection probably late in the second century. "Its impact upon the church in the late 1st and early 2nd century is plain from the doctrine, language and literary form of the literature of the period." [NBD2 172]

Again, these 13 letters were never in dispute. (The only exception is that the second-century heretic Marcion omitted 3 of them, probably because they directly condemned some of his teachings.)


Of the remaining NT documents, Acts, 1 Peter and 1 John were never in serious dispute. This leaves 20 of the 27 (the vast bulk of the NT, from which nearly every Christian doctrine can be deduced) as being universally accepted from as early as we can determine.

But we can find the very early church being even closer than that to the final NT canon. Irenaeus (130-200) is familiar with 24 of the 27 NT books: all except Hebrews, 2 Peter and 3 John [NBD2 173-174].

{And there are very plausible reasons for these omissions too. I will deal with these in a later post, in which I will deal with each book in more detail.}

[Patzia] A.Patzia, "The Making of the New Testament", Apollos,1995)
[NBD2] "New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition" (Ed. J.D.Douglas, N.Hillyer; IVP:1982) Article p.171-177 is "Canon of the New Testament", by J.N.Birdsall Ph.D., Reader in New Testament and Textual Criticism, University of Birmingham

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