The word “canon” likely suggests a brand of camera or a (misspelled) big gun to a lot of people, rather than anything to do with the Bible.

But the concept of canon as an exclusive set of works is in fact common even outside of biblical studies. Scholars in the humanities speak of various literary, artistic, musical and philosophical canons. Fans of popular fictional series debate which movies, books or TV episodes are canon, part of the official storyline of their favourite franchise.

In any event, this sense of the word, which comes from Greek and means “measuring rod,” was first used by Christians in the early church to distinguish which of their writings were Scripture and which were not.

This, of course, raises questions among skeptics and thoughtful believers alike: How were these documents selected? Who selected them? Why these documents and not others? How do we know we have the right ones?

There are no doubt Christians who haven’t given it too much thought, or who assume an early church council must’ve settled all these questions once and for all. The reality, however, is more complex and interesting, and also more consistent with how God typically works through human history.

Separating fact from fiction

There’s a common storyline about the early church, promoted by skeptics and popularized in books like The Da Vinci Code, that goes something like this:

At the beginning of the church, there were diverse brands of Christianity , none of them considered more orthodox than any other. Likewise, there were various documents floating about, many of them as popular as those which wound up in the New Testament. As an oral culture, the early church didn’t put much stock in written documents anyhow, so people in the church could read widely and freely and believe what they chose. It was only centuries later that the dominant orthodox group, together with the Roman emperor, decided which teachings and writings were orthodox, in order to consolidate their own political power.

The problem with this scenario is that it can best be described as historical fiction. Almost none of it is supported by biblical or historical evidence.

While the early church was indeed an oral culture with many non-literate members, as was the case in the wider society, this didn’t mean they were non-textual. They had Scriptures from the beginning – the Old Testament. They read it publicly, studied it and embraced it as the Word of God. In this, they followed the example of the apostles and of Jesus, who quoted liberally from the OT Scriptures.

Since Jesus is the fulfillment of everything in the Old Testament, it was inevitable that the writings of his apostles, who recorded his life and fleshed out his teaching, should become the capstone of the biblical account. Those apostolic writings, which make up the New Testament, are by far the earliest Christian documents in existence, dating from about 50 to 70 A.D., with John’s works a bit later, from the 80s and 90s A.D. By comparison, the apocryphal gospels all date from the 2nd century or later, clear forgeries claiming to be written by various apostles, long dead by then.

And far from endorsing a heterodox blend of doctrine, the NT authors always point to one God, one Christ, one Gospel and one faith delivered to the saints. The four Gospel writers are either apostles (Matthew and John) or else close associates who relied on apostolic witness (Mark with Peter; Luke with Paul). The Apostle Paul describes his own teaching, both spoken and written, as the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:15). When he tells Timothy that the labourer deserves his wages, he is quoting the Gospel of his friend Luke as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18; Luke 10:7). And when Peter refers to Paul’s letters (plural) as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), he shows that even at this early stage, there was a collection of Pauline epistles circulating with scriptural authority.

There was no Internet or printing or modern postal service in the Greco-Roman world. Letters and other documents had to be copied by hand and delivered by envoys travelling from city to city, and passed along in the same way. It took time for all of the NT documents to reach every corner of the church. It took a while longer for a handful of the shorter letters to be universally accepted. But by the early- to mid-2nd century the core books, including the fourfold Gospel and Paul’s letters, were widely recognized as bearing apostolic authority, cited and quoted as Scripture by the early church fathers.

Early canonical lists

The Festal Letter of Athanasius from 367 A.D. contains the earliest known list of all 27 New Testament books, and only those books. But it is far from being the earliest canonical list.

Origen, writing over a century earlier around 250 A.D., in his typical metaphorical style, compared the apostles to priests blowing trumpets around Jericho to herald the Gospel. In the course of his fanciful description, he appears to cite all 27 books of the New Testament, with the possible exception of Revelation.

The Muratorian fragment, dated to about 180 A.D., is the earliest known canonical list of New Testament books, affirming 22 of the 27. These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 of Paul’s letters, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3 John) and Revelation.

Even earlier witnesses to the authority and canonicity of the Gospels include Papias (c. 125 A.D.) a disciple of John; Justin Martyr (c. 150 A.D.) who wrote of the Gospels “drawn up by [Jesus’] apostles (Matthew, John) and those who followed them (Mark, Luke)”; and his pupil Tatian’s Diatessaron (c. 170 A.D.), one of the earliest harmonies of the four Gospels.

Irenaeus, writing around 180 A.D. and contemporary with the Muratorian fragment, stated that there could be no more and no less than four Gospels, just as there are four winds and four corners of the earth.

Finally, one of the most useful keys to understand how the canon developed was provided by the church historian Eusebius in the early 4th century. He laid out four categories of books that were available in the early church, in descending order of value:

Recognized books had been universally accepted since earliest times and there had never been any serious dispute over them. These include 22 of the 27 New Testament books: the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s 13 letters (plus Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter and Revelation.

Disputed books had been subject to some early debate but were still considered canonical. These are the five shorter NT books: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John and 3 John. Together, these first two categories make up the canon of the New Testament.

Rejected books were still considered helpful and valuable to read but didn’t have the authority of Scripture. Among these were some of the early post-apostolic writings, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache and the epistle of Barnabas. They were read much as modern believers might read their favourite Christian author – as useful and inspiring but not on par with Scripture.

Heretical books were so far off the rails theologically that they had little or no value for the church. They included the apocryphal Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, among others. Contrary to popular theories of modern critics, these works never even rose to the level of being disputed. According to Eusebius, they were “forgeries” that were “altogether wicked and impious.”

It’s important to note that none of these canonical lists were written as new, authoritative declarations about which books should be included in the New Testament. Rather, they listed books that the church had already recognized as Scripture, via a growing consensus, over the course of its history.

Qualities of canonicity

What criteria did the early church use to recognize whether a book was inspired by God, and therefore part of the canon of Scripture? In broad terms, there were three:

Apostolic authorship. Jesus commissioned his apostles to testify about his life, teaching, death and resurrection. In Greco-Roman culture, an apostle was a messenger who spoke with the authority of the one who sent him. Alongside the Old Testament, the teaching and writing of the apostles was foundational to the creation of the church and the spread of the Gospel. Paul described the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). To qualify as Scripture, a document had to be written by an apostle or a close associate who received his teaching directly from an apostle.

Universal reception. As the body of God’s new covenant people, the early church could be expected to recognize the books that came from their covenant Lord. This doesn’t mean that everyone agreed on every book right from the start. Clearly, they didn’t. However, one would be able to trace an unfolding consensus in which the overwhelming majority of the church came to recognize a book as Scripture. Such consensus was a strong indicator that a document belonged in the New Testament canon.

Divine attributes. Jesus told his followers, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Consequently, the early church recognized that if a book were from God, they would be able to hear his voice in it. Much like how nature reveals God’s attributes, any book from him would contain internal evidence of his divine qualities, his beauty, power, wisdom and grace. Understandably, non-believers may argue that such a criterion is subjective. But for believers, the Holy Spirit opens their hearts to see God’s attributes and hear his voice in these objective, self-authenticating texts.

The fuzzy edges

None of this process happened overnight, with sharp, clear boundaries between what was recognized as canon and what was not. It took time, and there were fuzzy edges. A handful of the shorter New Testament books were disputed for a while, likely due to questions about their authorship.

At the same time, a few writings of the apostolic fathers, the generation following the apostles, were popular in the early church. These writings, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas and 1 Clement, were considered generally orthodox and edifying to read, and they occasionally entered the discussion about canonicity. Overall, however, they were judged not to bear the authoritative marks of divine inspiration. They appear in far fewer manuscripts than the canonical books, are cited far less frequently by other patristic writers, and rarely if ever are they quoted as Scripture.

The discrepancies are even more pronounced in the case of the apocryphal Gospels. These documents, which include the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Peter, among others, were all written in the 2nd century or later, with the names of long-dead New Testament figures attached in an attempt to gain legitimacy. They’re attested in a mere handful of manuscripts, were never in serious contention for canonical status, and are often cited negatively by the church fathers for their heretical and Gnostic ideas. If they had been as popular as skeptics claim, there’s no material evidence to support that.

In addition, these documents were gospels in name only. Unlike the four canonical Gospels, they offered no coherent narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus. Instead they were collections of sayings and weird legendary stories. The Gospel of Peter, for example, claims that Jesus emerged from the tomb as a giant with his head in the clouds, followed by his cross, which then began to speak.

And the Gospel of Thomas, a favourite among modern critics, ends with this bizarre misogynistic exchange: “Simon Peter said to him, ‘Let Mary [Magdalene] leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

It’s worth repeating that the writings of the apostles took time to circulate in the 1st-century Mediterranean world, and a while longer for all of them to be accepted. But by the mid-2nd century, there was overwhelming consensus about the core of the New Testament canon. And in any event, the early church, led by the Holy Spirit, could easily tell the difference between, say, the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, and which of the two offered an authentic apostolic portrait of Jesus.

The canon chose itself

Contrary to the urban myth promoted in popular novels and on the Internet, the New Testament canon wasn’t decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. by politically driven church leaders  in collusion with the Emperor Constantine. In fact, neither the Council of Nicea, nor the Emperor Constantine, nor any other church council, had anything to do with the creation of the New Testament.

Rather, the canon emerged gradually, organically, not always along clean lines and sharp edges, within the context of the early church. It began with the teaching of the apostles and developed as the people of God came to recognize, by widening consensus, which of their writings bore the authority of apostolic witness and spoke with the voice of their Lord.

Michael Kruger, a New Testament scholar specializing in the formation of the NT canon and the early church, sums it up like this:

“The shape of our New Testament canon was not determined by a vote or by a council, but by a broad and ancient consensus. . . . This historical reality is a good reminder that the canon is not just a man-made construct. It was not the result of a power play brokered by rich cultural elites in some smoke-filled room. It was the result of many years of God’s people reading, using and responding to these books.”

It was a similar process with the canon of the Old Testament. In the centuries between the return from exile and the coming of the Messiah, there was no council of rabbis or scholars to determine which books belonged in the OT canon. Instead, the covenant people of God came to recognize over those centuries which of their writings spoke with the authority of the prophets, and which were apocryphal. And by the time of Jesus, there was a fixed consensus. The Lord viewed the Law, Prophets and Writings as authoritative and assumed his hearers would concur. Even his enemies never challenged him over questions of canon.

None of this should come as a surprise. If God came to earth in human form and spoke his Word (both OT and NT) through human authors, one should only expect that he would preserve it the same way – through fallible humans and messy human history.

As Michael Kruger concludes, “In the end, we can certainly acknowledge that humans played a role in the canonical process. But not the role that is so commonly attributed to them. Humans did not determine the canon, they responded to it. In this sense, we can say that the canon really chose itself.”

It may be tempting to wish there had been some sort of council or official declaration that defined the canon of the Scriptures once for all. But this is wrong. It’s far more reassuring to recognize that God has chosen to preserve his Word in the way he usually works – through his flawed and limited people. That way, the reliability of Scripture depends not on the deliberations of a human council, but on the wisdom and power of God.

Sources and further reading

Michael J. Kruger is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. His website, Canon Fodder, from which the material for this article was drawn, offers a wealth of resources, written at a popular to intermediate level, about the development of the New Testament canon and the history of the early church.

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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