New Testament Canon: Why these books?

by | Dec 15, 2020 | 02 Library, Introductions

The problem of canon describes the issue of why do we have the New Testament books we have? Why 27 books? Why not 28? Why not 5 gospels? Scholars have attacked Christianity by claiming that Christians don’t know which books should belong to the New Testament canon and which ones shouldn’t.

If we don’t know the answer to why these 27 books, then we do have a problem. But it’s not the Achilles heel of Christian faith that critics claim it is. We Christians do have an answer.

Definition of Canon

The Greek word “kanon” means “rule or measure” (i.e. a measuring rod or standard of evaluation). Today it refers to a list of books that are accepted by the churches as the measuring rod of Christian faith.

As Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between ‘lightening’ and ‘lightening bug.'” Scholars look at the same evidence and date the canon differently because they define “canon” differently. How we define canon determines how we date the New Testament canon.

There are 3 complementary definitions and we need all of them.

Canon as exclusive list

The canon as a fixed, final, closed list. This definition defines the canon by the end of the process. You have a canon when the debate ends and consensus is reached. When you have a list to which nothing can be added or taken away, then you have a canon.

If you define canon by the end of the process, then you date the New Testament canon to the 4th-5th century.

Pros: This definition recognizes that the canon evolved over a period of time.

Cons: This definition gives the impression that the church was in the dark until the New Testament light clicked on in the 5th century. But the historical evidence suggests Christians knew which books were authoritative long before the 5th century.

Cons: This definition also suggests the church did something to “create” the canon in the 5th century. But we have a canon regardless of whether the church acts or not.

Functional Canon

You have a canon when you see Christians using certain books as Scripture, even if the list is not fixed. Once we see the New Testament books function as Scripture and recognized as authoritative in the churches, we see a canon.

If you use this functional definition, we see a New Testament canon very early in the second century.

Pros: This definition recognizes that a core collection of 22 out of our 27 books functioned as Scripture very early in church history with very little debate. Only the tiny books were in question. (Smaller books tend to get overlooked.)

Cons: This definition also implies the church has to do something to create the canon (i.e. treat the books as Scripture). But the New Testament canon is not an authoritative list of books, but rather a list of authoritative books.

Canon as gift of God

The canon is the list of books that God gave to His church. This definition looks at the canon from God’s perspective. If God inspired an author to teach and write His message, it is authoritative and part of the canon.

If you hold this definition, you have a canon in the 1st century, as soon as the authors wrote the book. The canon was completed when the last authoritative author wrote his last letter (i.e. when the Apostle John finished writing Revelation).

Pros: This definition reminds us that these books have authority regardless of whether the church recognizes them.

Cons: The church can still debate which books are authoritative gifts from God.

Together these 3 definitions give us a complete picture: God gave His people the gift of authoritative books, the church began to use them as Scripture and reached a consensus on the fixed list.

The New Testament Canon

  • Like the Old Testament prophets, the apostles were given the ability by the Holy Spirit to accurately recall and interpret the words and deeds of Jesus (John 14:26; John 16:13-14).
  • The apostles claim an authority equal to that of the Old Testament prophets (2Peter 3:2; 1Cor 2:9-13; 1Cor 14:37; 2Cor 13:3).
  • Some New Testament writings are placed alongside the Old Testament canon as part of Scripture (2 Peter 3:16; 1Tim 5:17-18 [cf. Luke 10:7]).
  • If we accept the arguments for the traditional views of authorship of the New Testament writings, then we have most of the New Testament in the canon because of direct authorship by the apostles.
  • Mark, Luke and Acts were commonly acknowledged very early, probably because of the respective authors’ close association with an apostle (Mark with Peter; Luke with Paul).
  • Jude was not accepted as early because of his quotation of 1Enoch. Jude later accepted in virtue of the author’s connection with James and the fact that he was the brother of Jesus.
  • The acceptance of Hebrews was urged by many in the church on the basis of assumed Pauline authorship . However, many others rejected Pauline authorship (e.g. Origen). Therefore, its acceptance was not due primarily to a belief in Pauline authorship , but rather the intrinsic qualities of the book.

Historical Testimony

  • Athanasius’ Easter Letter (367 AD), Letter 39.5: “Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are the four Gospels, according to M atthew, Mark Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans, then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy ; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.”
  • Athanasius’ Easter Letter (367 AD), Letter 39.7: “But for the greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely ] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing up on them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.”
  • 1 Clement, 44.1-2 (95 AD): “Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of bishop. For this cause, therefore, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have been already mentioned, and afterwards added the codicil that if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”
  • Ignatius to the Romans 4.3 (110 AD): “I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; they were Apostles, I am a convict; they were free. I am even until now a slave.”
  • Ignatius to the Trallians 3.3b (110 AD): “I do not think my self competent, as a convict, to give you orders like an Apostle.”


Series: Bible Study 101

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