The New Testament Canon

Some critics and scholars view the New Testament as a product of the Catholic Church and that the canon was only formulated in the Fourth Century. Others feel the New Testament canon of 27 books was already formed by the year 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem. Still others, though agreeing with this, would place the writings of John near the end of the First Century.

How did the New Testament form and when did the 27 books become accepted as inspired portions of the Bible canon? How is this to be determined? It is admitted that no answer will please everyone as various agendas are at work within the modern Christian Church. Scholars of one sort will always argue with scholars of another sort. What is our own conviction, however?

Jesus Foretells the New Testament

In his Last Passover counsel to his apostles, the Nazarene told them: "Yet I have many things to tell you but you are unable to bear it right now. But whenever that one arrives -- the spirit of the truth -- he will guide you into all the truth. ... The Helper, the holy pneuma, which the Father will send in my name, that one will teach you everything and restore to your memories everything I told you." (John 16:12, 13; 14:26) We believe this to be true: the Father would funnel the holy pneuma through His Son in such a way to cause the inspired disciples to remember "everything" Jesus taught. They were then able either to write these sayings down or dictate them to others. This would benefit future believers. (John 17:20)

How soon did this process begin? When did the disciples who wrote inspired letters begin to quote Jesus? There is evidence that Paul is quoting and referencing Jesusí teachings in his first letters: First Thessalonians and First Corinthians. It is possible when Paul mentions "the word of the Lord" at 1 Thessalonians 4:15 he may be alluding to what Jesus said to Martha about two groups of believers: those who would die and be resurrected and those living who would no die. This conversation later became John 11:25, 26. The New Jerusalem Bible renders the Thessalonian verse: "We can tell you this from the Lordís own teaching."

Among the very first quotes of the Nazarene is Paulís allusion to Luke 10:7 ("the worker is worthy of his wages") at 1 Corinthians 9:14; and, then the full quote of it at 1 Timothy 5:18. So, as early as the fifth decade of the First Century Paul quotes what was to become the Gospel of Luke. This is not surprising, for we remember that Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. We note in Paulís quote of the Lordís words he does not use the phrase as it is in the Gospel of Matthew 10:10 ("the worker is worthy of his food") but Lukeís "worthy of his wages." Was Luke working on his own Gospel while traveling with Paul? He would have plenty of opportunity to interview eyewitnesses of Jesusí life: Peter, John, James, and likely Barnabas and others.

Luke had to write his Gospel, and record of the activities of the apostles, before 66. He recognizes that he was not the first to start this when he writes, "Since many have taken [pen] in hand to compile a statement about those matters fully accepted as facts among us -- just as the original eyewitnesses and attendants of the Word gave to us -- it also seemed good to me, having followed closely in an accurate and logical overview, to write you, most excellent Theophilus, so you might know about those things you have been accurately taught orally." (Luke 1:1-4)

Also, regarding Luke note how the Book of Acts ends with Paulís first Roman imprisonment. It is known Paul was released and lived another two years before his second imprisonment and final beheading in Rome. Clearly, if later third of fourth century editors were involved, such as the Catholic Church, they would have added this information, perhaps emphasizing Peterís own crucifixion.

This would place the bulk of the New Testament before the destruction of Jerusalem. Other evidence of such early written records is the discovery of the so-called Jesus papyrus which has been traced by at least one scholar to around the year 50 AD.

Certain things lacking in the present 27 books prove these were canonized long before the Catholic Church had control: the lack of emphasis on Mary; the disappearance of Peter early in the Book of Acts; the lack of a controlling church hierarchy.

Both Paul and Peter were martyred around the year 66, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem. We find Peter referring to Paulís letter as "scripture" in 2 Peter 3:15, 16, " ... Paul, according to the wisdom given him [inspiration] wrote to you speaking about these things as he does also in all his epistles ... which the untaught and unsteady twist as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures." So, before the year 66 Peter gives his own inspired recognition of Paulís letters as "Scripture." Also, Peter may well quote directly from Paul in his first letter. Note in 1 Peter 2:23 and 1 Peter 3:9 where the words of Romans 12:17 occur.

Concerning an early date for the New Testament canon, we note L. A. Muratori, Ambrosian Library, Milan, Italy, first published in 1740. The Muratorian Fragment in Latin, dates c150-190 AD), "[The first portion is missing] ... The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, wrote it in his own name . . . The fourth book of the Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. . . . And so to the faith of believers there is no discord, even although different selections are given from the facts in the individual books of the Gospels, because in all [of them] under the one guiding Spirit all the things relative to his nativity, passion, resurrection, conversation with his disciples, and his twofold advent, the first in the humiliation arising from contempt, which took place, and the second in the glory of kingly power, which is yet to come, have been declared.

"What marvel is it, then, if John adduces so consistently in his epistles these several things, saying in person: 'what we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, those things we have written.' For thus he professes to be not only an eyewitness but also a hearer and narrator of all the wonderful things of the Lord, in their order. Moreover, the acts of all the apostles are written in one book. Luke [so] comprised them for the most excellent Theophilus . . .

"Now the epistles of Paul, what they are, whence or for what reason they were sent, they themselves make clear to him who will understand. First of all he wrote at length to the Corinthians to prohibit the schism of heresy, then to the Galatians [against] circumcision, and to the Romans on the order of the Scriptures, intimating also that Christ is the chief matter in them-each of which it is necessary for us to discuss, seeing that the blessed Apostle Paul himself, following the example of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name in the following order: to the Corinthians (first), to the Ephesians (second), to the Philippians (third), to the Colossians (fourth), to the Galatians (fifth), to the Thessalonians (sixth), to the Romans (seventh). But though he writes twice for the sake of correction to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, that there is one church diffused throughout the whole earth is shown [?i.e., by this sevenfold writing]; and John also in the Apocalypse, though he writes to seven churches, yet speaks to all. But [he wrote] out of affection and love one to Philemon, and one to Titus, and two to Timothy; [and these] are held sacred in the honorable esteem of the Church. . . .

"Further, an epistle of Jude and two bearing the name of John are counted . . . We receive the apocalypses of John and Peter only, which [latter] some of us do not wish to be read in church.í ... " The New Testament is regarded as definitely made up of the four Gospels, the Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, the Apocalypse of John, probably three epistles of his, Jude, and probably I Peter, while the opposition to another of Peter's writings was not yet silenced." (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1956, Vol. VIII, page 56.)

"Near the close of the 1st cent., Clement bishop of Rome was acquainted with Paul's letter to the church at Corinth. After him, the letters of both Ignatius bishop of Antioch and Polycarp bishop of Smyrna attest the dissemination of the Pauline letters by the second decade of the 2nd century." (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by G. W. Bromiley, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 603)

Justin Martyr (died c165 AD), in Dialogue With Trypho, a Jew (XLIX), uses the phrase "it is written" while quoting the Gospel of Matthew just as the same words are used when referring to the Old Testament. The same may be said of the letter The Epistle of Barnabas (IV). Justin Martyr in The First Apology (LXVI, LXVII) refers to the "memoirs of the apostles" as Gospels. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, pp. 220, 139, 185, 186)

Theophilus of Antioch (Second Century AD) wrote: "Concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God." Another scholar, Theophilus, uses the phrase "says the Gospel" and then quotes Matthew 5:28, 32, 44, 46; 6:3). He also writes, "the divine word gives us instructions" and then quotes 1Timothy 2:2 and Romans 13:7, 8. [The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1962, Vol. II, pp. 114, 115, "Theophilus to Autolycus" (XII, XIII)]

Thus before the Third Century the Christian canon of the Bible was completed. Likely, however, the Christian canon was virtually complete -- with the exception of Johnís Gospel, letters, and the Revelation -- before the year 70 AD. Such ante-Nicene "fathers" as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian equated the words of the Christian canon with that of the Hebrew Bible. Irenaeus quotes Paul 200 times. In answer to pagan opponents, Clement writes "the Scriptures which we believe are valid from their omnipotent authority ... by the law and the prophets, and besides by the blessed Gospel." (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, p. 409, "The Stromata, or Miscellanies.")

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Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller

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