The Old Testament was written over a period of more than one thousand years. The New Testament, by contrast, was completed within the span of a single century. Yet, even though the inscripturation process was produced more quickly than the Old Testament, the development of the New Testament canon is a long and complicated story that demands specialized study regarding the final list and arrangement. While we find a broad outline of the New Testament fixed no later than the mid-second century, local and differing traditions remained. Eventually, several features came to the fore and believers (the church) eventually united on what was canonical.
This recognition of many of the New Testament books was exponentially more rapid than that of the Old. In fact, God’s people recognized the inherit authority of some books soon after they were recorded, just as the Jews had done earlier with some of their writings. Indeed, the recognition of the majority of the canon was known during the earliest periods. By the time of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians—postulated by some to be the earliest Pauline book of the New Testament—he compared his own message to “the word of God” (2:13) and commanded Christians to read his exhortations. “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (5:27). Elsewhere, he speaks of his words as a “command of the Lord” (1 Cor 14:37). This personal testimony is confirmed by Peter who had no compunction to include Paul’s writings with the other books of Scripture (2 Pet 3:15–16).
What is also telling in 1 Timothy 5:18 is the formula Paul chooses when he writes, “For the Scripture says . . .” He follows that introduction with a quote from Deuteronomy 25:4 (cf. Luke 10:7) and the phrase, “The laborer deserves his wages,” a quote from Matthew 10:10. By prefacing the verses in the manner he did, Paul unequivocally gave equal importance to the New Testament Gospel. Clement of Rome (d. 101), considered the first of the Apostolic Fathers, also testifies to the authority of Matthew and Luke in which he freely acknowledges their importance and shows an intimacy with many of the Pauline letters in his own correspondence to the Corinthian church in AD 95. Two other early church Fathers, Polycarp and Ignatius, combined with Clement, authenticated the New Testament Scriptures by referring to them as authoritative. Throughout the corpus of their writings, only Mark’s Gospel, Second and Third John, Jude and Second Peter were not lucidly attested.
With that in mind, however, the first definitive list, or canon, of the New Testament to be presented was produced in the middle of the second century by the heretic Marcion. Raised in the Christian tradition and son of the bishop of Sinope in Pontus (modern day Turkey), Marcion early on displayed a strong contempt for Judaism and for the material world. By the year AD 144, he left his home and church and journeyed toward Rome where he made a concerted effort to revive Paul and overthrow the teachings of the Old Testament.
Marcion’s theological construct was heavily influenced by Gnosticism. Most notably, he agreed with their anti-biblical view in the depravity of the material world and concluded the universe was created by an evil god. Though he freely embraced many aspects of Gnosticism, he rejected the convoluted Gnostic theory of creation and instead proposed a much simpler view. He theorized that there were only two gods: an evil god and a good god. Because of his antipathy for Judaism, he taught Jehovah of the Old Testament must be the inferior and wicked god who created the universe. Besides, he reasoned, Jehovah was a vengeful, vindictive, and capricious deity who punished people unjustly for their actions.
Ruling over the vengeful Jehovah is the compassionate God of the New Testament. This God requires nothing from us; He is merciful and is willing to forgive our iniquities. Salvation is also freely given to everyone since God does not desire to punish humanity but wishes all to come to repentance. Out of his profound love, therefore, God sent his only begotten Son to save all people.
It was only natural, then, that Marcion’s dualism led him to reject the Old Testament and seek to promote his views through a misreading of select New Testament writings. So devoted to his overriding theological presuppositions was Marcion that he compiled a list of books he considered to be the true canon. His final list yielded a truncated Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline epistles, which were also similarly expurgated.
Marcion’s decision to promote a New Testament listing is telling for this reason. Strong opposition against Marcion’s canon bears testimony to the fact that the church already possessed, at least in some rough form, a defined collection of writings which went beyond Marcion’s limited canon. Churches functioning throughout the region in which he taught came to be regarded, by other bishoprics, as deviating from established orthodox truths.
Had the majority of believers not already recognized what was authoritative for the church, Marcion’s deficient listing might have prevailed. But nowhere do we find evidence of this happening. In fact, the opposite is true. The unanimous consent of the early church Fathers is that they stood united in affirming the authority of the New Testament Gospels and the apostolic writings. Of course, this statement is easily verifiable and finds support throughout the historical record.
During the second half of the second century, Irenaeus, trained under Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, quotes from the New Testament on the basis of its authority and provides an apologetic effort as to why the four Gospels are true (and only four). Further, he reckons Acts, First Peter, First John, the Pauline epistles (save Philemon) and Revelation as being equal with the rest of Scripture.
Also during this time period, about AD 170, came the emergence of the Muratorian Canon. First discovered in 1740 in the Ambrosian Library, Milan, by a librarian named Muratori, the eighth-century copy of the canon included the four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul, Jude, First and Second John, and Revelation. The manuscript also included a statement that indicated Second Peter remained in dispute since it differed in style from Peter’s first epistle. Again, what we discover is that by the late second century, the New Testament canon (the majority text) is confirmed and represented except for a few “Catholic Epistles”.
The churches in the East and the West continued to disagree over these final few books. Though sometimes grouped with other Scriptures and generally believed to be beneficial for spiritual nourishment, skepticism prevented their inclusion into the canon for some time until suspicion abated. For example, the West was agnostic toward the book of Hebrews, and Revelation was generally excluded by many in the East until as late as the fourth or fifth century. The Western church remained silent with respect to the books of James, Second Peter, Second and Third John, and Jude until the fourth century and even then were received with skepticism in some circles.
Through a gradual process of recognition, nevertheless, both the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom arrived at a common understanding as to the extent of the canon of the New Testament. The first official document citing the authoritative list of twenty-seven books we have today was promulgated in Athanasius’ Easter Letter for the year AD 367. Three decades later at the Council of Carthage, the same twenty-seven books were decreed to be of divine origin and to be read in all the churches.
This article was extracted from Adam Murrell’s Essential Church History: And the Doctrinal Significance of the Past (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2010), 18-21.