This is Part 9 of 9 parts answering the basic and very important question, “What does Canonicity mean and why is it important?”
What about the New Testament? Why were those books collected? Was the Old Testament not enough? The answers may seem obvious, or maybe not. Let me summarize with several reasons. First, they were prophetic, that is they were written by an apostle or one closely associated with an apostle so they had apostolic authority, like Mark was closely associated with Peter and Luke was closely associated with Paul. Secondly, the church had theological and ethical demands that needed Divine teaching and validation. For example, Paul taught in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture was inspired by God and profitable for teaching… so a catalogue of recognized books was necessary. Thirdly, there were heresies abounding and a recognized and established Canon was necessary. For example, there was a church scholar named Marcion, who promoted a heretical Canon consisting of only Luke’s gospel and ten of Paul’s epistles. This clearly pointed the need to collect a complete canon. Fourthly, on the very positive side, a missionary stimulus required a Canon so they would know which books to use. Fifthly, there were persecutions and politics, for which many would lose their lives under pagan rulers like Diocletian. That caused church leaders to want to know for which books they were dying. And yet 25 years later, under the emperor Constantine who ordered 50 copies to be made at imperial expense, caused a careful scrutiny of all religious writings in order to discover which were truly authoritative.
What was the collecting procedure for the New Testament? At first glance, it may seem like someone just collected a bunch of letters and books. It was not a matter of personal opinions or preferences. The following guidelines were followed. First, the book must have apostolic authority. The book or letter had to have been written by an apostle or one closely associated with an apostle. The church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Secondly, there was a test of uniqueness that the book had to give evidence of its inspiration. Thirdly, there was the test of acceptance by the early churches. For example in 1 Thessalonians 5:27, Paul stated that the book was to be read to all the brethren and another example is in Revelation 1:3, which promised a blessing to all who read the words of the prophecy and kept them. Fourthly, circulation of the letter was considered. For example, John quoted the Lord’s instruction in Revelation 1:11, “…write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches.” Paul gave direction regarding his letter to the church of Colossae, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” (Col. 4:16). Fifthly, there had to be consistency with the Old Testament and Apostolic writings as in 2 Peter 3:15-16 where Peter says Paul’s writings are on the same level as other Scriptures. Jude may be quoting from 2 Peter 3:2-3 in Jude 1:17-18 demonstrating consistency and interdependency between the books. And sixthly, there must be recognition by the church fathers. Every book of the New Testament was cited at least in part by the church fathers. (For more information, see Geisler and Nix’s excellent book called “Introduction to the Bible, page 186).
So how did the collection process develop? Was it a one-time gathering of church leaders? What sources included lists of the canon? Consider the following abbreviated church history. The Old Syriac collection used of the Eastern Orthodox Church completed their Canon at the end of the second century and included all 27 books except 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation. The Old Latin Version, translated by 200 A.D. and used of the Western church contained all books except Hebrew, James and 1 & 2 Peter. There was the Muratorian Canon made in 170 A.D., but it omitted Hebrews, James, and 1 & 2 Peter. Then there was the Codex Barococcio made in 206 A.D. and had 64 of the 66 books of Scripture excluding Esther and Revelation, but Revelation had been supported by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and the Muratorian Canon. We should note that the books were broken down into the Homologoumena which were the accepted books and the Antilegomena which were the doubted books (mentioned previously). For example Luther, who was still a millennia after the acceptance of the New Testament still called James a “strawy” epistle, that is very hard to understand because of its apparent contradiction to the lack of works in Romans. Then there were the Apocrypha New Testament writings like the Epistle of Barnabas, The Acts of Paul, etc. These had similar problems as the Old Testament Apocrypha. And finally the New Testament Pseudepigrapha, mentioned previously, which list contains known forgeries.
We should highlight that the Church Councils of Hippo in A.D. 393 and Carthage in A.D. 397 ratified the present day Canon.
Now I have not even mentioned why God used the Greek and Hebrew languages, what material and instruments were used in the writing and transmission of the text, or how we came to have verses and chapters, and all the discoveries that have been made so that we are able to have our present text. That will have to be for future posts!
Does this post or any of the previous eight raise any questions with you?