Brief History of the Development of the New Testament Canon
Updated: May 17
Many Christians in the world regard the bible as the sole rule of faith. However, this position is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the development of the canon took place over a long period of time, well after the establishment of the Church. Although there were aspects of the canon that were established earlier, there are many books of the New Testament that were contentious for long periods of time. “The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning... has no foundation in history” (Canon of the New Testament).
The New Testament itself gives us some hints at the canon. 2nd Peter, for example, supposes familiarity with Paul’s writings. Yet, there does not appear to be any establishment of a definitive canon handed down by the Apostles. The writings which we now consider to make up the New Testament canon were often addressed to specific communities for specific purposes. By the second century these books were exchanged between different communities, but there was a great deal of uncertainty about which books should authentically belong.
Many of the early “Church Fathers base the authority of a book on its Apostolic origin” (Canon of the New Testament). The presumption is that the Apostles were aided by Divine inspiration, like the Old Testament prophets. It should be noted, however, many of the books of the New Testament were not written by Apostles and that other books claiming Apostolic titles were not included. On this account, there is division among theologians as to what the criteria should be. Some hold that doctrinal tradition is the key factor, while others still champion Apostolicity. In either case, Divine Inspiration is a critical criterion for inclusion.
A third theory holds that the Gospel message, the good news of Christ’s salvific mission, was proclaimed by the Apostles and the disciples of Christ. This message was passed on in a multimodal fashion, as best suited to transmission. The canon was then formed as “an official witness” to the evangelical character of the gospel message (Canon of the New Testament). In any of these cases, it is critical that the contents of the New Testament are in sync with the teachings of the Apostles. The New Testament testifies to the good news that was passed on by the Apostles which they received from Jesus.
The core of the canon resides in the Four Gospels and the thirteen Epistles of St. Paul. Based on writings from early Fathers such as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr the gospel canon was firmly established by the last quarter of the second century. These books were recognized to the “exclusion of any pretended Evangels” (Canon of the New Testament). Later false gospels appear to build on the authority of the four Gospels. Many other gospels that were attributed to the Apostles were rejected. The four accepted Gospels are attested to by many writers across a wide swath of territory who presume their readers would be familiar with both these gospels and the epistles of Paul.
Many post-apostolic writers who showed familiarity with the Gospels also recognized “the sacred quality” of the Pauline letters (Canon of the New Testament). One of the oldest known lists of the New Testament Canon- the Muratorian Canon- list 13 of the Pauline letters along with four Gospels. In addition, these letters are cited very frequently among the disciples of the Apostles such as Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch. This is strong evidence for the formation of a corpus of Paul’s writing which would be included in the final canon.
The other books of the New Testament, including Acts, Hebrews, the Catholic Epistles, and the Apocalypse did not have such firm footing. The authorship of Hebrews was disputed early on with some communities claiming Paul, but not all (Canon of the New Testament). The Catholic Epistles were not constituted as a single body, but circulated as independent letters (with the possible exception of I-III John). Into the third century, we begin to see the final shape of the canon form although it was not universally accepted in its current form.
In the beginning of the 3rd century and into the middle of the fourth century we begin to see “a consciousness, reflected in certain ecclesiastical writers” as to the probability that different groups of texts belong in the canon (Canon of the New Testament). In Egypt, Origen and his student Eusebius classify the different groups of texts by the strength of their biblical claims. Both men write that some of the books are universally accepted: The Gospels, the thirteen Pauline Epistles, Acts, I Peter, and I John. The Apocalypse was also included in this list although Eusebius had some misgivings about it. In addition, he included Hebrews in this list. Next there were the writings that were accepted by some, but not all. Origen included Hebrews in this list and both men included II Peter, II and III John, James, and Jude as books that they thought should be included in the canon. Origen also considered books such as Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas (among others) as books he thought were divinely inspired. Eusebius on the other hand listed these as part of his inferior contested books, or, those which he thought should not be included. Eusebius considered all other works to be spurious. These lists influenced the Alexandrian Canon, especially that of Origen.
In the African Church, St. Cyprian had a canon that was similar to the Latin Bible, but without some of the Catholic epistles (Canon of the New Testament). Cyprian had strong reservations against Hebrews and although Jude had been accepted long before by Tertullian, its status was doubtful. The Mommsen Canon, circa 360, also testifies that the Church of Carthage acknowledged virtually the same books as Cyprian, approximately one century later. The epistles of St. John and II Peter appear in this canon, but many doubts about their authenticity had not yet been resolved (Canon of the New Testament).
Toward the middle of the fourth century the canon as we know it today begins to be firmly established. St. Athanasius is generally credited with listing this canon, using the Alexandrian Canon but without the same reservations that either Origin or Eusebius had about some of the books. At the same time, some of the books preferred in that community were rejected and delegated to apocryphal status, such as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermans (Canon of the New Testament).
In the Latin Church, the Muratorian Canon appears to have been very influential, with some of the same books finding favor or doubt as those found in the Alexandrian canon. In a similar period to St. Athanasius, more frequent communication between the Eastern and Western Churches began. This fostered more influence on the Western Church especially by way of St. Jerome (Canon of the New Testament). This had some positive effects, especially regarding the canonical status of books such as James and Hebrews. Under the direction of Pope Damasus, a synod was held at Rome in 382 which was dedicated to the matter of the New Testament canon. St. Jerome was specially invited to participate. The canon that derived from this council “presents the complete and perfect Canon which has been that of the Church universal ever since” (Canon of the New Testament). Through this, the church of Rome exerted her influence over the West and this canon was then used by all of the Latin Fathers of the period.
Not long afterward, the African Church followed the Damasan Canon as well. In 393 a Synod was held at Hippo over the canonical status of many of the contested Epistles, but the view of St. Augustine prevailed and the Damasan canon was affirmed. However, there is evidence that this did not stem the controversy as several more councils also affirmed this canon from 393 until 419. The major sticking point appears to have been the book of Hebrews, which was specially separated from the other thirteen Pauline Epistles (Canon of the New Testament). Even with that in mind, the lists found in the Hippo and Carthaginian councils are “identical with the Catholic Canon of the present” (Canon of the New Testament).
The canon of the Catholic Church was fixed by roughly 420. This settled the issue of the disputed books with some being regarded as Apocryphal and others being affirmed as inspired books of the bible. This inspiration being finally regarded as the criteria by which a book should be included or excluded from the canon. Similarly, the Greek Churches by the “beginning of the sixth century, practically had a complete and pure New Testament Canon” (Canon of the New Testament). This canon stood relatively steady until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
Beginning with Luther’s revolution, doubts were again cast about the inspiration of some books of the bible. His theology, and those of other “reformers”, caused rejection of several books such as Hebrews and James. Although many of the protestant groups held the bible as the sole rule of faith, they did not even agree with one another as to exactly which books should make up the bible. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the Catholic canon in response to this. The Lutherans excluded several books from the New Testament for over a century (Canon of the New Testament). Although Lutherans and many other protestant churches continue to reject the Deuterocanon of the Old Testament, they have largely come back to the same New Testament Canon as the Catholic Church.
The formation of the New Testament canon was a long process. It required discernment of what really should be included or excluded. Eventually, the Church accepted the criteria of divine inspiration to be the most important, although Apostolicity is still considered an important aspect by some Theologians (Canon of the New Testament). This canon is revealed through the ordinary teaching authority of the Church, without which the table of contents would not be possible to discern.