Before we move into the Development of the New Testament canon, let’s very briefly look at the origins of the Bible.
Based on John Dane’s The Bible, the Christian Bible is actually a library of books from stories to history and literature which could be classified as a religious text. It is made up of 2 sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Old Testament was composed between 1200 to 165 BCE. It has 39 books and is considered to be the original Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). It is also ancient Israel’s literary archive.
Whereas the New Testament is borned between 50 to 100 CE. It contains 27 books and has 2 major sections, the Gospels and the Epistles (Letters).
Significance to History
The complexity of the development of the New Testament canon indicates how authenticity is viewed subjectively (just like historical interpretations). Biblical scholars today have faced difficulty in trying to determine if the sources (Book of Mark, Luke and Matthew) were reliable because most of the teachings were conducted orally thousands of years ago. Due to the issue of credibility and reliability, the New Testament canon was only universally accepted by those who placed their faith in Christ after a long period of time. Even today, some of the books in the canon are not accepted by some churches.
Moreover, the development involved numerous people and places. Thus, different perspective towards selection of books made it difficult to draw clear criteria were drawn during that period of time. The selection criteria could only be clearly drawn out by more recent historians such as Daniel F. Lieuwen who wrote “The Emergence of the New Testament Canon” in 1995. These factors are the main reasons as to why the development of the New Testament has always been a rather complex and subjective issue even to this day.
What is in the New Testament Canon
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which were first-hand accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and were believed to be the four “Pillars of the Church”.
The Epistles are believed to be divinely inspired and holy letters written by the Apostles or family members of Jesus Christ to churches or individuals. It is a form of guidance to Christians on how they could commit their lives to Jesus against the context of their society.
The Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of the narrative in the Gospel of Luke. It is a description of the fulfillment of the command Jesus gave His Apostles to preach the and spread the word of Jesus’ resurrection. Its purpose was to share the story of how Christianity was spreading, the move towards earthly concerns and the triumph of the Christian message despite persecutions.
Finally, the Book of Revelations (also sometimes considered a product of the persecuted status of early church) ,though difficult to interpret, apparently can reveal the secrets of our world and also the end (Apocalypse). This book is rather different from the others as it involves mythical creatures, demons and some sort of description of Hell. Honestly, this is the most entertaining part of the bible!
So how did the development of the
New Testament begin
According to Daniel F. Lieuwen, Marcion of Sinope kickstarted the development between 130 - 140 CE. He felt that the Christian Gospel should be a Gospel of love, forgiveness and acceptance instead of a law based Gospel. Thus, he began to create his own canon which include the Lukan gospel and 10 Pauline letters (which he compiled) as he was convinced that Luke and Paul understood Jesus. His ideology was quite popular, as it was against the belief of Orthodox Christianity in the second half of the second century (Para 11).
Despite the popularity of his ideology, his gospel was seen as unorthodox and it was denied as a credible canon by the early church (Marcion of Sinope, Para 3). Marcion felt that the 11 books used in his canon are distorted. Thus, there are sources which suspected that he began to reconstruct the texts by removing all other perspectives but one from his Gospels and Epistles, but it is unconfirmed that he did really edit the texts.
In order to counter Marcion’s distorted canon, the other editions New Testament canon began to develop and expand but the 11 books (unedited) used in Marcion’s canon became the main focus and direction for the final canon created (and Gospel of Luke were believed to be the four “Pillars of the Church”). One of the prominent opposition towards Marcion’s edited canon was St. Justin Martyr who was an early Christian apologist. He cited the four gospels, Paul’s Epistles and Acts. He was just like Saint Paul Irenaeus believed that the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) formed the core of the New Testament.
Saint Irenaeus produced the first known Catholic canon. He was also the first known to have adopted the Marcion canon and insisted that the Four Gospels existed and were true accounts. He also asserted that these four that he used were the “Four Pillars Of The Church.” He even went further to support this claim by stating that is four is a perfect number as how the earth is made up of four corners. Thus, the birth of the four Gospels Mark, John , Luke and Matthew came to light and formed the foundation of the New Testament.
Saint Clement of Alexandria was another prominent figure in shaping the New Testament (Para 7). However, his aspect he emphasized the most was “ inspiration” and downplayed canonicity. He also preferred the four gospels and deemed it as the foundation of the New Testament.
Around 200 CE, also known as the “expansion period”, the strict selection criteria for books was loosen. Nearing the later laps of the expansion period, most canons consist of the 4 Gospels, Acts and Pauline Epistles. The books which are still caught up in the debate are the Revelation, Hebrews, Philemon and the Catholic Epistles (I and II Peter, I and II and III John and Jude).
Despite the ongoing debate, 2 letters of John, Jude and Revelation was included within the Muratorian canon. However, the canon did not include the Shepherd of Hermas because according to Timothy Jenkins’, the book did not have a clear date. Furthermore, it was debated that it was not written by an Apostle as the author of the source is unclear.
Just as things are getting heated in the expansion period, it was terminated by the Montanist Heresy. They believed that their mission was to help Christ finish the uncompleted work and it was impious to reject their 3 prophets. This action made the church tighten criteria and thoroughly review what books to be eliminated from the canon. Resulting in the development of the canon to slow down because different areas began to accept different books into their own canon.
The final acceptance of the New Testament canon with the 27 books only happened near the end of the 4th Century as the Western church was skeptical about the authenticity of the Orthodox for the Hebrews and the Eastern church was doubtful about the Revelation.
Summary on the Criteria for the Books to be Chosen
Based on the chronological events and people involved, we can conclude that the multiple perspectives on the credibility and authenticity of the various readings boils down to the following 4 criteria (Lieuwen, 1995) for the books to be considered part of the canon.
The criteria which was one of the most crucial factors, Apostolicity, was chosen because for the scriptures to be reliable as possible, it was best to have sources who were closest to Jesus thus to provide more factually accurate , detailed and intimate account. They had an intimate and special relationship with the Lord that other common men did not have. In fact, it was Clement of Rome that also deemed the apostles as” evangelists made by Christs and sent by God.” Moving on, the next criteria is for it to have been authentic. This means they should parallel similar content mentioned in other canonical books so as not to be so disparate. The contents of the books should also be “ Christocentric” meaning that it should revolve around Jesus Christ. Lastly, it should also be accepted by the church and church leaders rather than just specific congregations so that the scope of contents is not limited. This should also inspire faith in the people and have a” moral effect” on them to abide by virtues like love and purity preached by Christ and The Lord and uplift them which was also another criteria.
However, apart from these 4 criteria, other factors such as contradictions, inconsistency, sudden change in writing styles and material that promulgates values that go against the Catholic Church(Heretical) also plays a role in the rejection of Books and scholars criticism of them
As we are focusing on the history of the development, it boils down to the fundamental question of whether the accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are, in fact, historically reliable. (Not the theological beliefs.) As we have learnt in class - people in ancient times might not be able to record such events in precise detail due to the the lack of resources. Also, most stories recorded during ancient times were normally exaggerated for the sake of storytelling (e.g Epic of Gilgamesh). Even though the gospels were narrowed down to only 4, there are still discrepancies between them. For example: Matthew wrote that on the day Jesus resurrected, Jesus told them to meet him at Galilee. However, according to Luke, Jesus told them to meet Him at Jerusalem and not to leave the city.
In short, despite the general acceptance of the New Testament and it's reliability, we are seeking how people view historical reliability and accuracy in the accounts of these books. We are not challenging the theological beliefs. Put simply, we want to know exactly what occurred and how the selection criteria was set through people’s actions and decisions.
Daniel F. Lieuwen. “The Emergence of the New Testament Canon” (1995).
Glen Davis. “Justin Martyr, Saint” (1997 - 2010). The Development of the Canon of the New Testament
John Dane. “The Bible” (2011-07-12).
Lebreton, J. “St. Justin Martyr” (1910). The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent
Timothy Jenkins. “The Shepherd of Hermas” (2012-10-30). A Best Seller’ Rejection from the Canon, p. 1-4.
New Canon Blogspot. “Criteria for Inclusion in Canon” (n.d.)
Wikipedia. “Development of the New Testament canon” (n.d.).