Four Truths about the NT Canon Every Christian Should Know
People love diversity. When it comes to music, cuisine, clothing styles, or any other aspect of culture, variety can be a beautiful thing. When it comes to the background of the New Testament canon, however, the belief in diversity is very nearly an assault on the deity of Christ and questioning the teachings of the New Testament. Diversity allows people to create the Jesus of their choosing—and reject the Jesus of Scripture.
Beginning with German theologian Bruno Bauer, many New Testament scholars have become enamored with the idea that the early church was a diverse place with many different versions of the Christian faith. Critics claim that the early church was roiling in theological turmoil, with a dizzying number of Christianities available at the time because the church had no set canon. However, if the canon was fixed very early, then we should presume that the early church was a place where diversity was held to a minimum. Let’s consider four truths about the New Testament canon that every Christian should know.
Canonical lists include all the books we find in the New Testament. Athanasius assembled the first complete canonical list of N.T. books in c. AD 367. This list contains all 27 books of the New Testament. Origen produced earlier lists, with one around AD 250 naming the NT authors and the number of compositions written by each. He also mentions all the authors of the New Testament in his Homilies on the Genesis. The Muratorian Fragment preserves a list of books, although the fragmentary nature of the document means that some books are not included (for instance, the fragment references four gospels, but only Luke and John are visible in the text).
Canonical lists do not approve apocryphal and pseudepigrapha books. Numerous lists include all the writings of the New Testament, but they do not promote books whose authorship is disputed. Occasionally, such lists will include disputed books (such as the Apocalypse of Peter), but their authors indicate that others question the authenticity of these works by placing them after the NT books. Even the Marcionite Canon—which was produced by the heretic Marcion only five decades after the death of the last apostle in c. AD 140—includes no apocryphal works. Marcion pared down his list of N.T. books to ten Pauline epistles and a heavily edited version of Luke. Even though he excluded NT books because of his particular beliefs (which tended toward Gnosticism), Marcion did not include non-canonical texts in his list.
No apocryphal books date to the first century. Despite some critical scholars’ attempts to put apocryphal books back into the first century, none genuinely belong there. Many contain theological perspectives known to have developed decades after the New Testament books appeared. Others include legendary material that is fictitious (like a talking cross and a scene in which a herd of dragons worships the baby Jesus). Some have tried to place the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas in the first century. Both have Gnostic elements, and the majority of scholars agree that they date to the second century. A few believe that bits and pieces of the Gospel of Thomas may be traced back to the first century, but this view is highly speculative.
No canonical books date to the second century or later. The consensus of scholarship states that none of the New Testament books dates to the second century, even for those who dispute the authorship of some of the books. Scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries tried to place books like John’s Gospel and Acts into the second century, but all except those on the fringe have abandoned this idea.
Despite the claims that the church did not have a canon until three or four centuries after the time of Christ, it is clear that there was a functioning canon in the first century. The quest for early theological diversity runs headlong against the available evidence, meaning that the early Christian’s views of authoritative writings of the biblical authors were far more certain than critical scholars want to admit. In truth, the evidence points to a much more firmly established, authoritative list of books used by the early church.