Beyond the Hebrew Bible:
The Formation of the New Testament Canon
By Nigel Watson
A Long Process
When the writers of the New Testament refer to "the scriptures", they, almost
without exception, mean the Hebrew Scriptures. The only exception I know of is 2 Peter
3:15f, where the writer implies that "the scriptures" include the letters of Paul.
The process that culminated in the official recognition of a collection of Christian sacred
writings, to be honoured alongside the Hebrew Scriptures, was a lengthy one, lasting over
300 years. This process is often described as the formation of the "New Testament
Canon". Among the meanings listed in dictionaries of Ancient Greek for the Greek word kanon
we find the following: a straight rod, bar; a rule, straight-edge; metaphorically, a rule,
standard. The process of "canonising", or accepting as a rule of faith, certain
early Christian writings was stimulated by events both inside and outside the church.
Internal Stimuli – The Collection of the Pauline Letters
It appears that, by the end of the first century of the common era, the letters of Paul
were being collected together to form a kind of anthology. When Clement of Rome writes to
the Corinthians in 95, he can quote 1 Corinthians as readily as Romans and appears to know
Ephesians and Philippians as well.
The Recognition of Four Gospels
There were a number of Gospels written in the first two centuries after Christ, some of
which, like the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, came to light at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in
1945-46. Gospels like Thomas competed with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the early church,
but the latter rapidly gained an ascendancy, which they never lost. By the end of the second
century it was generally recognised that only these four were serious contenders for
inclusion in a collection of Christian sacred scriptures.
External Stimuli – Marcion
The movement to set apart four Gospels was accelerated by the activity of Marcion
(excommunicated in 144). Marcion"s central thesis was that the Christian gospel was wholly a
gospel of love, to the absolute exclusion of law. This conviction led him to reject the
Hebrew Scriptures completely. The Creator God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures had nothing
in common with the God of Jesus Christ. So, for Marcion, the only authoritative scriptures
were the letters of Paul, plus an edited version of the Gospel of Luke. The effect of
Marcion"s narrow canon would have been the complete rejection of Christianity"s roots in
Gnostics and Montanists
While Marcion sought to reduce the body of authoritative writings, others, particularly
Gnostics and Montanists, sought to enlarge it. These were different movements, but both of
them claimed to possess a plus of divine revelation.
The combined pressure of all these movements created an acute problem for the mainstream
churches in the late second century. Which of the growing mass of Christian writings were to
be recognised as authoritative? What were the criteria that should be used?
In practice, the main criteria that appear to have been used were (1) apostolic origin;
(2) orthodoxy of content; and (3) general acceptance by the churches. We should not suppose,
however, that these criteria were carefully articulated, formally accepted and then
consciously applied. We are dealing with something more like instinctive reactions on the
part of church members.
To comment briefly on these criteria: apostolic origin commended itself as a counter to
claims by Gnostics and Montanists to have access to a direct revelation not open to others.
Thus it was argued that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were each the work
either of an apostle or of a companion of an apostle. Many modern scholars seriously doubt
whether, in fact, any one of the four meets that criterion.
In a letter written by Jerome to Dardanus in 414 , we see a church father applying all
three of the criteria mentioned above. Jerome is discussing the Epistle to the Hebrews,
regarded by some as Pauline but not by others. For his own part, along with the
Greek-speaking churches, he accepts it, on balance, as Pauline, but then adds: "And it
does not matter whose it is, since it is the work of a churchman and honoured daily by being
read in the churches." Thus, for Jerome, the question of apostolic origin is relevant,
but not decisive. Hebrews is the work of a churchman, not a heretic. And it has proved to be
the sort of book that church people want to hear read and expounded regularly.
Growth from the Bottom Upwards
Jerome"s last comment on Hebrews illustrates an important truth about the formation of
the canon. In eventually establishing the canon, church authorities were only subsequently
ratifying decisions which had already been reached by the Christian communities. Church
leaders did not create the canon, they recognised the canon which had already been created.
A Firm Core with Controversial Edges
For some 200 years, however, there was a fuzziness about the edges of the canon. That is
clear from the variations in the lists of authoritative books that were proposed in the late
second and early third centuries. The so-called Muratorian canon shows us what books were
accepted and what books were rejected in Rome towards the end of the second century. This
list comprises the following books: the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, Jude,
1 and 2 John, Wisdom, Revelation and the Apocalypse of Peter.
Tertullian (c. 160-220), the first writer to speak of the "New Testament",
accepts the following: the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John,
Jude, and Revelation.
Nevertheless, the number of books that were "acknowledged" was considerably
larger than the number of those that were "disputed". By the year 200, the canon
of the New Testament was already five-sixths complete, and accepted without debate in the
entire Eastern and Western church.
A Certain Closure
The process of canonisation reached something like closure at Easter, 367, when
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, circulated a festal letter, listing twenty-seven books as
constituting the scriptures of the New Testament. Athanasius was followed by Jerome, by the
Council of Hippo in 393 and the third Council of Cartage in 397. Nevertheless, centuries
passed, before the twenty-seven book canon prevailed everywhere.
Luther and a "Canon Within the Canon"
The most important challenge to the consensus reached in the fourth century came from the
reformer, Martin Luther, in the early sixteenth century. Luther had problems with four
books, in particular: Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. While he included these books in
his Bible, he clearly regarded them as marginal. Without denying the traditional canon,
Luther raised the issue of a "canon within a canon".
Do the Churches have the Right to Revise the Canon?
|The Canon of the New Testament|
kanon, a straight rod or bar; a rule or standard; a rule of faith; the list of
sacred books that serves as the rule of Christian faith and life.
"The Scriptures" in the NT regularly means the Jewish Scriptures. The
process of the formation of the NT canon lasted 300 years.
Catalyst of this process:
A. Inside the church the collection of Paul"s letters; the recognition of four
B. Outside the church Marcion"s tendentious canon — Paul"s letters plus an edited
Luke; Gnostics and Montanists want a canon that includes them.
The Response of the Mainstream Church
Those writings are authoritative which (1) are of apostolic origin; (2)
demonstrate orthodoxy of content; and (3) have been generally accepted by the
churches. Illustration: Jerome"s letter to Dardanus in 414 C.E.
Some Stages along the Way towards Consensus
The Muratorian Canon: 4 Gospels, Acts, 13 letters of Paul, Jude, 1 and 2 John,
Wisdom, Revelation and the Apocalypse of Peter. Tertulian: 4 Gospels, Acts, 13 letters
of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, Jude, Revelation. Therefore: Consensus about the core:
controversy about the edges.
The Festal Letter of Athanasius in 367 declares 27 books canonical
Jerome follows Athanasius, as do the Council of Hippo in 393 and the third Council of
Carthage in 397.
Luther"s Canon within the Canon Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation relegated
to the margins.
May the churches add books to the canon or take books away? What if an ancient book
turned up with strong claims for inclusion?
Conclusion: on the whole, the church decided well. We can"t say that the NT
would not have played the part it has played if it had included, say, Hermas or
excluded 2 Peter. "The exact boundaries of the NT canon may be debatable, but the
distinctiveness and indispensability of what lies centrally and solidly within those
boundaries remain quite clear and undeniable". (H. H. Farmer)
The view is sometimes expressed that the New Testament canon would be enriched by the
addition of some modern spiritual classics, like, for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer"s Letters
and Papers from Prison. But, apart from the practical difficulty of securing consensus among
the churches over which modern books to include, there is the obvious objection that such
books have not been used and accepted by the churches for almost two thousand years, however
inspiring and theological they may be.
But what if an ancient book turned up with strong claims for inclusion? For example, most
New Testament scholars believe that Matthew and Luke drew on a collection of sayings of
Jesus generally referred to as Q [Q stands for Source]. If Q existed, it has been lost. But
what if a copy of Q were to turn up in the sands of Egypt?
Again, we can be sure that we do not have all of the letters that Paul wrote to his
churches. In 1 Cor. 5:9, for example, in his earliest extant letter to the Corinthians, Paul
refers to an earlier letter. What if this "Previous Letter" were to turn up?
My own opinion is that the churches today would have to apply the same criteria that were
used in the early church, particularly the third, namely, use and acceptance by the
churches. In other words, the newly discovered writing would have to prove itself over time,
just as the writings eventually included in the New Testament proved themselves over time.
To approach the problem from another angle: the view is expressed from time to time that
the churches would be better served, if this or that part of the New Testament canon were
excluded. Some have proposed, for example, that the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and
Titus) be omitted, because of their hierarchical-patriarchal pattern of thought. Others have
proposed that the anti-Jewish passages in John"s Gospel be omitted.
It is highly unlikely, however, that anything will come of these or similar proposals. In
practice, the churches do marginalise parts of some New Testament books, by simply not
including them in their lectionaries. The Common Lectionary is a very effective mute button.
Besides, publications like Rightly Explaining the Word of Truth provide clergy with prefaces
with which they can introduce any problematical passages.
A Product of Sanctified Commonsense?
Few scholars would deny that, on the whole, the early church decided well. I do not see
how one could maintain that the New Testament would not have played the part that it has
played in the life of the
Christian community and in the lives of its individual members, if it had included some
early writings which it does not now include, such as, say, the letters of Ignatius
(35-107). Nor do I see how one could maintain that the New Testament would not have played
the part it has played, if it had excluded some early writings that were regarded as
"disputed", such as, say, 2 Peter or Jude. The distinctiveness and
indispensability of what lies centrally and solidly within the boundaries of the New
Testament canon is undeniable.
For Further Reading:
Kurt Aland, The Problem of the New Testament Canon (London: Mowbray, 1962).
John Barton, Making the Christian Bible (Oxford: OUP, 1998).
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., "Introduction to the Canon", in Leander E. Keck and
others (eds.), The New Interpreter"s Bible, Volume 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994)
B. M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its origin, Development and Significance
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1987).
Nigel Watson was Professor of New Testament Studies in Ormond College within the University
of Melbourne from 1965 to 1993. He has published books and numerous articles in the field of
New Testament studies.