The New Testament Canon: How and When Did the Gospels and Epistles Become Scripture?

Updated on January 16, 2018

The Apostolic Period

The period between Jesus Christ’s ministry and the dawn of the second century is known as the “Apostolic Period” (30’s A.D. – 100*) It was during this time that the books that eventually came to make up the New Testament were written, ending with the penning of the Revelation of John, no later than 96A.D.7.

When considering the church’s attitude toward these works, it is common for members of two opposing camps to assume extremely differing views that defy the historical record. It would be wrong to claim that the early church identified the whole of the New Testament as “Canon”, or “inspired scripture,” but it would be no less wrong to claim they considered these works as having little more significance than that of other Christian teachers of the time. It is clear (for instance from Peter’s association of Paul’s letters with “The other scriptures”, 2 Peter 3:16) that from the beginning some viewed individual books, and even whole corpuses as “scripture”, and perhaps most regarded these works as possessing an authority other Christian writings simply did not1. However, it was a time before the whole of the church regarded all of the “New Testament” as canon.

A page of manuscript P46, a late 2nd/early 3rd codex containing the Pauline epistles
A page of manuscript P46, a late 2nd/early 3rd codex containing the Pauline epistles

A Christian Canon

In the second century A.D., a surge in Pseudo-Christian sects, known collectively as “Christian Gnostics” forced the church to take a deeper interest in defining those works that should be considered canon. Churches in varying regions began sharing those texts which they utilized as scripture with one another, presenting a unified front against gnostics who claimed to hold their own “secret” gospels (or who, like Marcion, were endeavoring to rework various gospels and epistles3). To this aim, the late-mid second century sees the first extant example of a list of “Recognized” books – The Muratorian Fragment**. By 180 A.D., Irenaeus recognizes 4 equally authoritative gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John2, and the letters of Paul (excluding those written to individuals as opposed to whole churches) are found in single manuscripts as a complete corpus.

The gospels, acts, and the Pauline epistles were the earliest books to be recognized by the whole church, other works, it is believed, took longer to gain widespread acceptance3. That being said, it is important to note that two epistles of John and Revelation appear in the Muratorian Fragment as does the book of Jude. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History (324A.D.) lists 1 John and 1Peter among the recognized books, and also includes Revelation and Hebrews (albeit with a caveat that these two are contested by some), though he denies others such as Jude4. One ought also to consider the writings of Origen (185-254A.D.); in his homilies on Joshua and Genesis, Origen lists all of the New Testament writers.

The Muratorian Fragment
The Muratorian Fragment

A Finalized Canon

It should be noted, however, that even in those churches where certain books were not recognized as scripture, they were still considered good for being read for the congregation and were known by most4.

Regardless of this, in the year 367 A.D., Athanasius lists the full canon of Scripture as we know it, both Old Testament (Sans Esther) and New in a festal letter. In doing so, he made clear that his intended audience would know well the list already5,6.

Concerning these scriptures, Athanasius wrote:

“These are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone the teachings of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees and said ‘you do err, not knowing the scriptures,’ and he reproved the Jews, saying, ‘search the scriptures, for these are they that testify of me.6

Footnotes

* The apostolic period can also be considered to have ended in A.D. 96, the latest likely date for the writing of Revelation, the final canonical book of the New Testament to be written. Alternatively, it could be considered to have ended with the death of the last apostle – John, c. A.D. 98.8

** Some have called the Muratorian Fragment into question, considering it to be a fourth century corruption of an earlier work. Hill, however, presents a compelling argument for the circular reasoning involved in this argument, and Kurt Aland seems to have held no such reservations1,2.


1. C.E. Hill _ Westminster Theological Journal, 57:2 (Fall 1995): 437-452

Courtesy of: earlychurchhistory.org _ https://earlychurch.org.uk/pdf/fragment_hill.pdf

2. Aland and Aland, The Text of The New Testament, p. 48

3. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol I

4. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History

5. Dr. James White, Scripture Alone _ p. 108

6. http://www.bible-researcher.com/athanasius.html

7. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Here gathered from quotations by Eusebius in

his Ecclesiastical History)

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© 2017 B A Johnson

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