10 Misconceptions About the New Testament Canon

By Dr. Michael Kruger:

This series exams some common beliefs out there in the academic (and lay-level) communities that prove to be problematic upon closer examination.

1. The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
2. Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
3. The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
4. New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
5. Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
6. In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
7. Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
8. Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
9. The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
10. Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books

At this link.

Why these Books?

2 Lectures:

1: Who decided which books should make up the New Testament? Are the right books in our Bible? Did the early church suppress other competing gospels? Should books like the Gospel of Thomas be in our Bibles?

This lecture was presented by David White at Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Mebane, NC on October 27, 2013.

2: The Reliability of the New Testament Text

How do we respond to accusations that the Bible has been hopelessly corrupted by centuries of copying and translation? How do we know that the Bible wasn’t altered and corrupted by early church councils who added or suppressed parts of the New Testament? How can we believe that God has preserved His word when the New Testament manuscripts we have are full of textual variants?

This lecture, presented by David White at Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Mebane, NC on April 21, 2013, seeks to answer those questions and give Christians confidence that the English Bibles we have today are the same authoritative Word of God delivered to the apostles and the early church.

The Formation of the Bible

bibleHere’s a short article by Timothy W. Massaro entitled “6 Things We Need to Know about the Formation of the Bible” – original source these councils affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. The councils merely declared the way things had been since the time of the apostles. Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that already existed.

2. Early Christians believed that canonical books were self-authenticating.
Another authenticating factor was the internal qualities of each book. These books established themselves within the church through their internal qualities and uniqueness as depicting Christ and his saving work. The New Testament canon we possess is not due to the collusions of church leaders or the political authority of Constantine, but to the unique voice and tone possessed by these writings.

3. The New Testament books are the principle Christian writings we have.
The New Testament books are the earliest writings we possess regarding Jesus. The New Testament was completed in the first century. This means the writings include testimonies from eyewitnesses and were written within fifty years of the events, which cannot be said of any of the apocryphal literature often discussed in the news. This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only gospel accounts that originate in the first century.

4. The New Testament books directly relate to the apostolic testimony.
Unlike any book from that period or the following century, the New Testament books were directly connected to the apostles and their testimony of the resurrected Christ. The canon is intimately connected to their activities and influence. The apostles had the very authority of Christ himself (Matt. 28:18–20). Along with the Old Testament, their teachings were the very foundation of the church. The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20).

5. Some New Testament writers quote other New Testament writers as Scripture.
The belief in new revelation or a testament of books was not a late development. From the days of the apostles themselves, these writings were seen as unique in their authority and witness. This belief seems to be present in the earliest stages of Christianity. In 2 Peter 3:15–16, Peter refers to Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” which would have put them on a par with the books of the Old Testament. This is a significant fact that is often overlooked.

6. Early Christians used non-canonical writings without analogous authority.
Christians often cited non-canonical literature with positive affirmation for edification. Yet, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying texts. Rarely was there confusion as to whether they were on a par with Scripture. These books were eventually disregarded according to the criteria of whether they had general acceptance, apostolicity, and self-authentication.

The Development of the New Testament Canon

michael j krugerArticle: Michael Kruger – “An Essential Key to Understanding the Development of the NT Canon” – (original source the internet is packed with myths, mistakes, and misunderstandings about how the whole process really worked.

While there is no quick cure for such misconceptions, there is one essential key that really helps clear away the cobwebs. And that key is understanding the different categories of books in early Christianity.

We tend to think there are only two categories, those books that are “in” and those books that are “out.” But, early Christians were more nuanced than this. In fact, they divided up books into four categories. And understanding these categories will clear up a good number of the misunderstandings of the way the canon developed.

We will take our cue from the four categories laid out by the well-known fourth century historian Eusebius in Hist. eccl. 3.25.1-7:

1. Recognized Books. For Eusebius, these are the books that are universally recognized as canonical and have been for a long time. These include: the four Gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation (though he acknowledges the last one has some detractors). Put another way, Eusebius acknowledges that there has been a “core” canon (22 out of 27 books) in Christianity for some time.

What misconceptions does this refute? Some scholars continue to claim there was no canon until the fourth or fifth century. But the existence of this “core” of recognized books shows that is simply not the case. These books had been established for generations and there was never any meaningful dispute about them.

2. Disputed Books. These are books that have been subject to some ecclesiastical disagreement, but are still regarded as canonical because they “are nevertheless known to most” (3.25.3). Not surprisingly, these include the smaller books: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John. The combination of recognized books and disputed books together form our 27-book canon.

What misconception does this refute? The category of disputed books reminds us that the boundaries of the canon were still “fuzzy” in the earliest centuries of Christianity and that it took a while for the church to reach a full consensus around these books. The canon was not dropped from heaven on golden tablets, but developed through the normal processes of history. And such processes aren’t always neat and tidy. Continue reading

The Earliest Listing of the New Testament Canon

books-of-the-New-Testament-envelope-bookArticle: What is the Earliest Complete List of the Canon of the New Testament? By Michael Kruger

(original source scholars like to highlight the first time we see a complete list of 27 books. Inevitably, the list contained in Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter (c.367) is mentioned as the first time this happened. As a result, it is often claimed that the New Testament was a late phenomenon. We didn’t have a New Testament, according to Athanasius, until the end of the fourth century.

But, this sort of reasoning is problematic on a number of levels. First, we don’t measure the existence of the New Testament just by the existence of lists. When we examine the way certain books were used by the early church fathers, it is evident that there was a functioning canon long before the fourth century. Indeed, by the second century, there is already a “core” collection of New Testament books functioning as Scripture.

Second, there are reasons to think that Athanasius’ list is not the earliest complete list we possess. In the recent festschrift for Larry Hurtado, Mark Manuscripts and Monotheism (edited by Chris Keith and Dieter Roth; T&T Clark, 2015), I wrote an article entitled, “Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Homiliae on Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look.”

In that article, I argue that around 250 A.D., Origen likely produced a complete list of all 27 New Testament books–more than a hundred years before Athanasius. In his typical allegorical fashion, Origen used the story of Joshua to describe the New Testament canon:

But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing “trumpets hammered thin,” the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, “I think God displays us apostles last,” and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations (Hom. Jos. 7.1).

As one can see from the list above, all 27 books of the New Testament are accounted for (Origen clearly counts Hebrews as part of Paul’s letters). The only ambiguity is a text-critical issue with Revelation, but we have good evidence from other sources that Origen accepted Revelation as Scripture (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.10).

Of course, some have rejected this list and have argued that it reflects the views not of Origen but of Rufinus of Aquileia who translated Origen’s Homilies on Joshua into Latin. I respond at length to this claim in the above-mentioned article, arguing that Rufinus is much more reliable of a translator than prior scholars have supposed.

The reliability of Origen’s canonical list finds additional support in the fact that it fits with what Origen says elsewhere. For example, Origen enumerates all the authors of the New Testament in his Homilies on Genesis, and this proves to be a remarkable match with his list of New Testament books:

Isaac, therefore, digs also new wells, nay rather Isaac’s servants dig them. Isaac’s servants are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; his servants are Peter, James, Jude; the apostle Paul is his servant. These all dig the wells of the New Testament (Hom. Gen. 13.2).

One can quickly see that this list of authors (again in classical allegorical style) matches exactly with his list of books. Although Rufinus also translated the Homilies on Genesis, are we really to think that he changed both passages in precisely the same way? It seems more likely that they match with one another simply because they both reflect Origen’s actual views.

Our suspicions are confirmed when we compare these two passages in Origen–the list of books in Homilies on Joshua and the list of authors in Homilies on Genesis–with Rufinus’ own list of canonical books. If Rufinus were guilty of changing Origen’s list to match his own, we might expect a lot of similarities in structure between all these lists. But, that is precisely what we do not find. In fact, Rufinus’ own list differs from Origen’s in a number of important ways (which I detail in the aforementioned article).

In the end, we actually have very good historical reasons to accept Origen’s list as genuine. And if it is, then we have evidence that (a) Christians were making lists much earlier than we supposed (and thus cared about which books were “in” and which were “out”); and (b) that the boundaries of the New Testament canon were, at least for some people like Origen, more stable than typically supposed.

Origen does not offer his list as an innovation or as something that might be regarded as controversial. In fact, he mentions it in the context of a sermon in a natural and matter-of-fact sort of way.

Thus, for Origen at least, it seems that the content of the New Testament canon was largely settled.

The Canonical Books

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; the books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth; the two books of Samuel, and two of Kings; the two books of Chronicles, called Paralipomenon; the first book of Ezra; Nehemiah, Esther, Job; the Psalms of David; the three books of Solomon– Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song; the four major prophets– Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel; and then the other twelve minor prophets– Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. In the New Testament, the four gospels– Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles; the fourteen letters of Paul– to the Romans; the two letters to the Corinthians; to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians; the two letters to the Thessalonians; the two letters to Timothy; to Titus, Philemon, and to the Hebrews; the seven letters of the other apostles– one of James; two of Peter; three of John; one of Jude; and the Revelation of the apostle John.

Article 5: The Authority of Scripture

We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith. And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them– not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God. For even the blind themselves are able to see that the things predicted in them do happen.

Article 6: The Difference Between Canonical and Apocryphal Books

We distinguish between these holy books and the apocryphal ones, which are the third and fourth books of Esdras; the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Jesus Sirach, Baruch; what was added to the Story of Esther; the Song of the Three Children in the Furnace; the Story of Susannah; the Story of Bell and the Dragon; the Prayer of Manasseh; and the two books of Maccabees. The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books. But they do not have such power and virtue that one could confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion. Much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books.