In contemporary times, researchers and scholars have raised differing opinions and discussions about the development of the New Testament canon. Consequently, different individuals have come up with disparate approaches and sentiments in a bid to solve this controversy. Different individuals raise opposing points on the criterion that was used in the selection of the books to be included in the New Testament. Currently, there is sufficient research that shows that the evolution of the New Testament canon was not a single event, but a rigorous exercise after the ascension of Christ. However, it is necessary to explore and evaluate the available evidence and offer clear solutions to the issue. Even though it is hard to attain an inclusive origin and the development of the New Testament Canon, this paper will attempt to show that the books were selected after a decision of several councils and individuals, and they were produced at different points in time.
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At one point during the early centuries of the Christian church, the New Testament collection of teachings did not exist. Many people do not understand how these collections of writing were selected to be included in the Bible. The validity of the New Testament can be affirmed because it has evolved through a traceable process.1 This development is a long process and not as precise as most people could have wanted it to be, hence making it more historically unviable. A survey of the literature on the development of the New Testament defines it as a collection of Christian books regarded as God-inspired, which formed part of the Bible. Conventionally, this collection entails twenty-seven divinely inspired books. In most conventional versions of the Bible, the New Testament is divided into four segments that include the Gospels, Acts, letters of Apostles, and the Revelation.2 This canon of the New Testament started to develop from the first century and it progressed through to the year 180 AD. To understand the evolution of the New Testament, there are important terms that should be discussed.
The concept of apostles was centered on the issue of authorization. Apostles served as Christ’s ambassadors entrusted with spreading the Gospel. Apostles were filled with the spirit of truth who would lead them into communicating a given revelation. The apostles served as witnesses of the salvation expressed through Christ. They testified of what Christ had done as they spread the gospel, and these testimonies were later recorded in the Bible. The other concept is traditional and it translated into what was passed on with authority. Unlike the apostolic age when oral and documented proclamation possessed equal importance, the New Testament literature forms the fixation of the past oral tradition. Therefore, the origin of the New Testament teachings was grounded in the apostles. For instance, Apostle Paul had acquired the privilege to receive as well as spread the tradition from Christ. The apostles had acquired the authority from Christ to transmit the gospel of truth and salvation. This authoritative proclamation, which was endowed to the apostles as the ambassadors of Christ, led to the origin and evolution of the New Testament.
Motives behind the creation of the New Testament
Several factors contributed to the motive of viewing the New Testament as something fundamental to compile. First, immediately after the ascension of Christ, the apostles were scattered all over the region, and thus only limited credible literature was available for inclusion in the Bible.3 Therefore, the Christian community realized the need for a new written authoritative document, but without the abandonment of the Old Testament. The early church was satisfied with eyewitness narratives from the apostles and other individuals who were close to Jesus. However, this approach lacked an official definition of what comprised authoritative Christian collection. At this time when Jesus and his Apostles lived and spread the gospel, there was no need for authoritative and conventionally approved Christian collections. What was to be found in the books was of lesser importance as compared to what was derived from the power of the uttered testimony of Christ and the apostles. However, the second century was different as the church went through a period of doctrinal controversies with claims that the teachings of the Old Testament had been compromised. To stop this notion, the early Christian Gnostics such as Marcion compiled a collection of doctrines, which he suggested as the only inspired and authoritative writings that represented the truths taught by Jesus Christ.4 He suggested that the church should adopt such documents and use them to transform the doctrine and renew the gospel of the early church.
Christianity was gaining momentum amongst the Gentiles and at the same time, several written works were being developed under the guidance of the apostolic fathers. The efforts of these apostolic fathers represented most of what is known of Christianity of their age. Most books of these ancient Christian writers lacked defined teachings of the scripture. This aspect created more speculations concerning later development. The need to distinguish literature from apostolic sources coupled with materials coming from heretical sources becomes inevitable. Apostolic sources comprised books of prophecy. They were “supposed to be prophetic, as Jesus had promised to use the Holy Spirit to pass His message to the church”5. This aspect made it easy to differentiate books that had apostolic authority from those that lacked the same.
The criteria used to achieve the New Testament
Some questions emerged and they needed official and authoritative clarification in a bid to determine the divine and good. Although several plausible arguments have been constructed since the existence of the Christian church, there is still no comprehensive criterion to explain how it was attained. The overbearing question for the church hinged on how to establish what entailed a real gospel and a trusted apostolic document. During the first centuries, the usual criterion applied to approve the validity and trustworthiness of a Christian document was apostolic authority.6 Apostolic authority entailed the inclusion of orthodox teaching on the Christian writings, which were believed to contain current beliefs and morals of the church. Also, such writings should have existed during the times of the apostles. If given writing was done after or before the apostolic age, regardless of its relevance, it could not be considered as a canonical book. In the early third century, the criterion for verifying genuine Christian writing was changing.
The writings that were termed as authoritative by early churchmen and councils via quotations started to be recognized as the collections that formed the New Testament doctrines. The author of the so-called “authoritative writing was supposed to be an apostle or a close associate of the apostle”7. The writings were supposed to share the general character of similarly inspired documents. However, the criterion applied to determine writing as authoritative was gradually changing. Origen viewed the new criterion as a platform through which early churchmen regarded a certain book as official and authoritative8. On the grounds of apostolicity alone, the writings of the New Testament could not acquire canonical status. Further considerations could be based on inspiration by God and orthodoxy. However, determining the criteria used to develop the New Testament can be boundless. The efforts to determine such a criterion cannot be termed as successful because it would damage the absolute authority of the New Testament writings. Public participation was also considered since the use of the New Testament involved worship in the church. Even though it was not the role of the Christians to choose since the New Testament was given to them, it was their role to avoid other false works in favor of the New Testament writings. There is insufficient evidence to show that these criteria were definitive. The majority of the writings, which met such criteria, were not included in the canon.
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Marcion’s collection of books including the editions of Paul’s letters, which helped to compel the early church to construct an authoritative collection of inspired writings.9 However, these writings added to what was finally agreed as the New Testament and they slowly generated interest as the most trusted and popular of all the ancient Christian books. The efforts by Marcion to set up a canon were a challenge to the church. Different churches did not agree to the Marcion’s canon as the true one. Therefore, this aspect meant that they had to show the real canon.
How the churches reached an agreement to this New Testament
The role of the church in “the development of the New Testament was to differentiate apostolic writing as defined by the foundation of the messiah from false and heretic works, which claimed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit”10. However, the church was based on the foundations of the apostles, which meant that it did not choose the New Testament. The church councils and associates “of the ancient church fathers referred to the apostolic authority to recognize the credible and unauthentic books.”11 Today, Christians acknowledge the twenty-seven books of the New Testament because they are intertwined with the historical redemptive events. The early church brought together the authoritative writings and recognized their inspiration from God, which led to the finalization of the compilation of the New Testament into a single collection of inspired books. The need for practical conditions as opposed to the motives had already escalated by this time. This aspect was necessary to give life and generate what was perceived as desirable teachings for the church. The collection of the New Testament took its definite form by AD 180.12 The early churchmen sought to come up with authoritative literature upon which no alterations could be made. During the fourth century, there was still a persisting debate questioning whether certain books qualified the criteria of authoritative inclusion.
Marcion and other movements seeking to explain the development of the New Testament compelled the church to create a reflection on the New Testament question. The Church’s response was divided into two, viz. the liberals and the conservatives. For instance, “on the liberal side was Adolf Von Harnack, who was an early German scholar and in his opinion, ancient Christianity was a religion of the spirit where oral teachings were dominant, but not letters and if there existed written documents, they lacked official status”13. Marcion emerged to give insights into the New Testament. In response to these claims, the church stood to defend its standpoint and it was forced to assume its canon and literature. Arguing from the conservative side, Theodor Ritter Von Zahn, a fellow German scholar, disputed Harnack’s claim that the development process reached maturity at the end of the second century. Zahn claimed that the majority of the New Testament books were well defined by the end of the first century. Harnack chose to avoid debates, but he concentrated on showing that the rise of false works, which were termed as heretical books, was essential in tracing the development of the New Testament. Through this approach, the development of the New Testament was taking shape. Due to the confusion and inadequacy in definitions, Zahn concluded that the New Testament canon attained a comprehensive structure at the end of the first and start of the second century. Harnack’s criteria of book selection to form the canonical writings suggested that the New Testament achieved full formulation by the end of the second century.
During the time of Jesus, only the Old Testament canon was available. The question that most people develop is how the church decided to adopt the New Testament. The Old Testament was seen as a foundation of the New Testament because Jesus the savior fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. These prophecies indicated that the “messiah would come, suffer, and die for the sins of humankind”14. Through his death and resurrection, God would initiate a New Covenant that would create an everlasting link between Him and humankind. The testimony to the life of Jesus as the messiah was orally told by the apostles and later presented through written documents, which formed the New Testament. The several divisions of the New Testament demonstrate the presence of the messiah during the development of the New Testament canon. For example, the gospels show the life and teachings of Jesus as the savior. The Acts of Apostles “records the history of the ancient church after the coming of Jesus Christ”15. The Epistles are letters acting as guides to the churches and councils of the ancient believers. The Revelation “records the final events connecting to the return of the messiah”16.
About 600 years before the coming of Jesus, Jeremiah had foretold about the development of a greater covenant, which would lead to the forgiveness of sins by humankind.17 Also, Isaiah had “written about the emerging of the righteous servant, who would bring justice to all nations”18. His death was foretold by Isaiah to bring forth light to the nations. Based on this knowledge, it suffices to conclude that Jesus the messiah developed his church and passed his message through his apostles. He entrusted them with the spirit of truth in a bid to shine a light to the nations and give salvation to the lost. Upon this foundation, the New Testament canon was taking shape. Before the death of Christ, he promised the descending of the Holy Spirit who would guide the apostles to remember the Lord’s teachings. This understanding reveals the inspirational aspect of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit is the origin of the words as transcribed in the New Testament, but not human knowledge. This assertion makes the New Testament a conscious document, which God preserves for the coming generations. Through his apostles, Jesus revealed the gospel that spread to all nations. Due to the inspiration of the spirit, the apostles would spread the truth via the written literature. These collections would form the New Testament canon.
As the church grew all over the world, it became essential to determine the writings that came from the apostolic teachings. It was necessary to discriminate against books that had ambiguous origins. The growth of the heretical movements was another threat to what was true teachings of the Christian church. Particularly, the Marcionites, which were formed by Marcion, attempted to create a rival church with doctrines based on the use of the names of apostles to design their teachings.19 The ancient church fought with these heretical movements by condemning and exposing their teachings. As Christianity spread across many continents, the false works associated with these groups brought great confusion to the church. As Christians “advanced to foreign lands spreading the Gospel, the need to compile the New Testament emerged since there was no Bible, but independent books”20.
Implications for the development of the New Testament
After the New Testament has been presented before the church in a desirable form as approved by the Roman church, it developed several implications. The New Testament was received as an official and authoritative work and it backed the Old Testament. Its effects were immediate and relatively perfect. However, the progress of its development was slow and hard; hence, it was a relief after its adoption by the Christian church. It was regarded as a gift from the Holy Spirit and it warded off the extremes threatening the development of the church.21 The New Testament expressed the rule of faith, which threatened the fall of the early portion of Christian writings that had failed to secure approval in the canon. Afterward, the emerging authorities and literature could not achieve the ultimate recognition claimed by the New Testament. The New Testament served as the foundation of Christianity. The New Testament gave a critical interpretation of salvation to humankind. This assertion holds because it provides Christians with a link to Christ through the teachings of the apostles. This aspect provides conscious and solid grounds for their values, beliefs, and growth of their spiritual lives. This written word of God gave direction to all Christians to live and practice the Gospel as a family. Through the ages, “Christians have been guided by the New Testament teachings to advance the conviction that the word is the true faith to be embraced by all believers”22.
The New Testament protected the Old Testament as a divine book for Christians. However, its superiority and relevance were illuminated by the fact the teachings were based on the life of Jesus Christ and most Christians of the early church had witnessed His teachings.23 This perspective thrust the Old Testament into a lower position but buffered the threat posed to the New Testament. If the church continued without the New Testament, the pressure to reject the Old Testament could have persisted. Almost no heretics recognized the New Testament’s authenticity as an authoritative book. It was hard for the Gentile world to sympathize with it. As long as the Old Testament remained as the only source of Christian literature, the risk of failing to free from Judaism was inescapable.24 Immediately the New Testament developed, the dangers were absorbed. The New Testament has successfully complemented the continuum of the Old Testament for the Christians. In comparison with the collections of Christian literature compiled for the use by the church, none of them reached the significance of the New Testament.
The state of the canon
The topic of whether the “canon is open or closed”25 has attracted many Christian discussions, which persist to date. To claim that the canon is open would translate that the Christian community can add or delete scriptures or books from the canon. The church received the canon as it is today, and since its role was just to receive, it has no authority whatsoever to alter the form of the New Testament. In other words, this study holds that the canon is closed and no changes can be considered in the future. History cannot undergo a remaking process, and thus the debate about the canon being open or closed cannot end.
Discussion and summary
In the fourth century, the New Testament canon was compiled precisely in a bid to flourish even to date. Most involved entities such as the council of Hippo and Carthage confirmed that this collection of twenty-seven books was acceptable for the adoption by the church as opposed to any other writings of the time. In establishing the books to be added to the New Testament canon, these councils approved what the churches of the west and a large section of the east had agreed. During the first two centuries, the involved parties identified books that accurately demonstrated the initial apostolic teachings. In the third and fourth centuries, the collection of the intended New Testament books was been defined.
Some factors that slowed the development of the canon included the majority of what ancient Christians had witnessed coupled with teachings by Jesus. Therefore, the nature of most apostolic documents failed to maintain universal coverage since the majority of the letters were addressed to specific congregations26. Apostolic interpretation of the importance of the teachings of the messiah required time. Nevertheless, some factors proved unavoidable and the need for a comprehensive canon was rising. Due to the insufficiency of the Old Testament, it was hard for the Gentiles to continue using it since it lacked explicit knowledge about Jesus.27 The teachings of Jesus reflected more authority than what the Old Testament offered, which underscored the plight of eyewitnesses coupled with a decline of oral tradition. With the decline of eyewitnesses, the credibility of oral tradition could not be trusted. Rival teachings arose in the mid-second century, and this aspect created the need for genuine apostolic documents. The use of Christian material came to the spotlight due to the proliferation of heresy. Lastly, the value of the doctrines of Jesus gained support from the early church.
In response to Harnack and Zahn’s claims as well as the controversies surrounding the completion of the canonical process, this study acknowledges that the facts about the date cannot be traced. This assertion holds because the process occurred at different points in time. However, it is altogether relevant to argue that the process reached maturity in the early fourth century since some collections of the gospel literature and authoritative epistles were identified within the first and second centuries. Later in the third century, such writings were gaining explicit canonical power with the corresponding level of inspired documents. This assertion implies that the full adoption or rather use of the New Testament by the Christian church was established in the late third and early fourth centuries. It would be wrong to conclude that the canon was adopted in all the diverse Christian churches. The canon achieved gradual reception, but the momentum was climaxed by the fourth century since true Christians needed these authoritative scriptures.
As opposed to the wishful thoughts of the apologists and some missionaries, the New Testament canon did not merely emerge from nowhere. As shown throughout this paper, the canon was the result of an evolution, which was motivated by opposing opinions by the agnostics. Disputes emerged both from within and outside the church. The process was slowed by particular impediments and normal hesitations. The New Testament evolved for the first century all through to the fourth century when it was fully compiled and approved for use by the church. Although this study leans on the historical development of the canon, it does not suggest any infallible process to attaining the New Testament. The certainty of this study is partly derived from the historical data, but its sustainability develops from the faith in the independence and power of God.
Allert, Craig. A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Bovon, François, and Glenn Snyder. New Testament and Christian Apocrypha. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.
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Köstenberger, Andreas, and Michael Kruger. The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
McNamara, Martin. Targum and Testament Revisited: Aramaic Paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible: a Light on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2010.
Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.
Porter, Stanley. The Pauline Canon. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.
Resseguie, James. Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Rosner, Brian. “Paul and the Law: What He Does Not Say.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32, no. 4 (June 2010): 405-419.
Schreiner, Thomas. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Theissen, Gerd. The New Testament: A Literary History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.
Thomassen, Einar. Canon and Canonicity: The Formation and Use of Scripture. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2010.
1 Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 65.
2 Martin McNamara, Targum and Testament Revisited: Aramaic Paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible: a Light on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2010), 14.
3 Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009), 65.
4 Craig Allert, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 43.
5 Ibid, 44.
6 Stanley Porter, The Pauline Canon (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 70.
7 Ibid, 71.
8 Einar Thomassen, Canon and Canonicity: The Formation and Use of Scripture (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2010), 50.
9 Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 96.
10 Ibid, 98.
11 Ibid, 101.
12 Thomas Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 43.
13 Ibid, 108.
14 Ibid, 75.
15 Ibid, 77.
16 Ibid, 77.
17 Brian Rosner, “Paul and the Law: What He Does Not Say,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32, no. 4 (2010): 409.
18 Ibid, 409.
19 James Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 32.
20 Ibid, 111.
21 Porter, The Pauline Canon, 112.
22 Ibid, 112.
23 Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 76.
24 François Bovon and Glenn Snyder, New Testament and Christian Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 6.
25 Ibid, 83.
26 Allert, A High View of Scripture, 12.
27 Theissen, The New Testament, 51.