August 27, 2014 Broadcast

Why Sixty-Six Books? The Development of the Canon

A Message by Stephen Nichols

The past few decades have witnessed a resurgence of criticism against the authority of the canon of Scripture. Books like The da Vinci Code seek to undermine the foundations of Christianity by shedding doubt on the cornerstone of its structure: the Word of God. Sadly, these critiques generally invent lies and falsify information to create “persuasive” arguments against the authority of Scripture, and one of the most common areas in which this occurs is the canonization process of the Bible. Yet, as this lesson demonstrates, the early church faced similar problems and struggles as they received God’s Word, and the wisdom He granted them to confront these problems and the faithfulness He demonstrated during their time should instruct and encourage us in our own day.

From the series: Why We Trust the Bible

Get the Providence: God in Control Series on CD and the Does God Control Everything? Booklet for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    The New Covenant Scriptures

  2. devotional

    Authority and Canon

  3. devotional

    The Canon of the Bible

The New Covenant Scriptures

C.E. Hill

In April of 2006, amid much media fanfare and not a little scholarly giddiness, The National Geo-graphic Society unveiled to the world a long-lost Gnostic gospel, The Gospel of Judas. “This is big. A lot of people are going to be upset,” one scholar excitedly predicted. “This changes the history of early Christianity,” pronounced another (Andrew Cockburn, “The Judas Gospel,” National Geographic, May 2006, p. 91). Now, two years later, about all that has changed regarding early Christianity are the bank accounts of those historians who have written books on the gospel of Judas. Already the new-yet-old gospel is all but forgotten by most Christians, who perhaps came to see its promotion as just another “Easter surprise” intended to throw Christians into a tizzy. Instead, the scholarly community is in its own tizzy at the moment, arguing about how the document should be translated and interpreted. In the meantime, the church need not hold its collective breath about the impact the gospel of Judas (in any translation) is likely to have on the faith. Still, its appearance does raise anew in the minds of Christians the legitimate question of how the twenty-seven books of our New Testament (NT) became “the New Testament.”

Picking up any of a number of recent works on the NT canon, one is likely to find the author seeking the roots of the NT canon somewhere in the needs of the early church. One says it was the battle against heresy that prompted the church to find some authoritative texts on which to take its stand.  Another points to the catechetical and liturgical need for new scriptures to nourish the spiritual life of the church.  Another looks to Constantine the Great’s campaign to unify the empire, which allegedly required an agreed-upon set of scriptures as an essential tool to promote concord. These all, and more, may have played limited roles in bringing about the church’s agreement on the contents of the NT. But the ultimate foundations for the existence of a NT canon must be sought not in any of these historical exigencies, but in the gracious purpose of a self-revealing God whose word carries His own divine authority.

The grounds for new covenant Scriptures

Throughout the course of God’s dealings with humanity, word-revelation has accompanied His redemptive acts in history. God’s confrontation of Adam and Eve after their sin, His covenant with Abraham, His dramatic redemption of Israel from Egypt, His establishment of the Israelite monarchy, His judgment in exile, and then His restoration — all were attended by new revelation from God to His people. Just so, when the promised Messiah came to redeem His people, a new and generous outpouring of divine revelation naturally followed (2 Tim. 1:8–11; Titus 1:1–3).

Prophetic passages such as Isaiah 2:2-3; 49:6 and Psalm 2:8, indeed, predicted a time when the light of God’s grace would be proclaimed to all nations. Jesus Christ, though He was the light of the world (John 8:12; 12:46), never in His adult life left the land of Palestine. He did bring light to the nations, of course, but it was through chosen apostles, whom He commissioned to be His authoritative representatives (Matt. 10:40: “Whoever receives you receives me”). These men were specially endowed by the Holy Spirit to “remember” Jesus’ words and works (John 14:26; 16:13–14) and to bear witness to Him “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, see Matt. 28:19–20; Luke 24:48; John 17:14, 20).

That this witness would eventuate in a new collection of written Scriptures — Gospels, apostolic history, letters, and prophecy — complementing the books of the old covenant follows naturally both from the pattern of God’s redemptive work in the past (mentioned above) and from the actual writing ministry of some of Jesus’ apostles and their associates in the accomplishment of their commission.

The recognition of new covenant Scriptures

Christians confess that, as God’s Word to mankind, “God-breathed” Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16) is self-attesting, and thus the canon may be said to be self-establishing. Yet history records that for centuries there were variations in local church practice and disagreements among churches and theologians about several books of the New Testament. When one thinks about it, such variations should not be so surprising, given that the process of recognition involved more than two dozen books that came into being over a period of perhaps fifty years, circulating unsystematically to churches as they were springing up in widely diffused parts of the Roman Empire.

To complicate matters, many documents were produced in the course of the early centuries that in some way paralleled or imitated NT books, some gaining considerable popularity in certain quarters. A fair number of “gospels,” “acts” of certain apostles, a few forged letters of Paul, and several apocalypses (writings that describe the coming judgment of God) all sprung up over time. These were written for various purposes. Not all were intended as “rivals” to the more accepted books; some seem to have been written for edification or even entertainment. Two of the most talked-about ancient “alternatives” today are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas. Are we to think that these were widely read and trusted gospels that “just missed the cut”? Hardly.

Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which are obviously based on Jesus’ words contained in the canonical Gospels, but many others are from unknown sources. Some of these sayings portray a very different Jesus, assume a very different theology, and breathe a very different spirit from what one finds in the canonical Gospels. Only three early church fathers mention this gospel, and all in a negative way, as something self-evidently heretical. While one may assume that somebody liked the book, the church at large never heard the authentic voice of Jesus in it.

The Gospel of Judas is clearly a Gnostic gospel, and it is even more radical. It was likely written around the middle of the second century. It contains no historically reliable information about Jesus but can give one a good idea of the kind of esoteric, Gnostic mythology that frustrated Christians. Only one early orthodox writer, Irenaeus, mentions this gospel, only to condemn it.

Perhaps more interesting is what happened with the so-called Diatessaron, compiled by a man named Tatian in about AD 172. The Diatessaron was one of the first “harmonies” of the four Gospels ever produced. The Syriac version of this harmony was the first form of the Gospels known in some Syriac-speaking areas where churches were started, and it served for quite some time as their only gospel. 

By the end of the second century, however, a “core” collection of NT books — twenty-one of the twenty-seven — was generally recognized among the churches: four Gospels, Acts, 13 epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Hebrews was widely known but questioned in Rome because of questions about its authorship. By sometime in the third century, collections of all seven of the “catholic epistles” were circulating, and known to most of the churches. Revelation, apparently accepted everywhere at first, fell under criticism in the third century, some finding it hard to interpret in line with the rest of the NT.

In the year 367, the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius in his annual Easter letter gave a list of the NT books that comprised, with no reservations, all twenty-seven, while naming several others as useful for catechizing but not as scriptural. Other fourth-century lists essentially concurred, though often not precisely. Three African synods, at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 and 419, and the influential African bishop, Augustine, affirmed the twenty-seven-book canon. It was enshrined in Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, which became the normative Bible for the Western church, even while some Eastern churches lagged in their recognition of certain books for more than another century. 

It is important to realize that in all its deliberations about the books that make up the canon of Scripture, the church did not sovereignly “determine” or “choose” the books it most preferred. It saw itself as empowered only to receive what God had provided, in books handed down from the apostles and their immediate companions. “Apostolicity,” “antiquity,” and “orthodoxy,” are not criteria by which the church autonomously judged which documents it wanted, but qualities the church recognizes in the voice of its Savior. Likewise, “liturgical use” and “church consensus” are reflections of the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. 

Bruce Metzger, one of the last century’s leading scholars of the New Testament canon, observed, “neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church” (The New Testament, Its Background, Growth and Content, third ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 318). William Barclay put it more succinctly: “It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so.” And this, in the end, is because Jesus’ sheep do hear His voice.

It has often been said that one of the best ways to assure oneself of the canonicity of the New Testament writings is to read some of their rivals. In this sense, we can only welcome the discovery of more writings like the Gospel of Judas. Though most of us could do without the fanfare.

Authority and Canon

As we continue our examination of biblical authority, we will today discuss the canon — the list of books that make up the Bible. Questions regarding biblical authority and the canon are inseparable. How do we know we have the right books in our Bible? Maybe we have left out an inspired book or have included an uninspired one? Roman Catholicism includes extra books in the Old Testament (the apocrypha) that Protestants do not. Which list is correct?

Roman Catholicism maintains that we know we have the right canon because the church infallibly determines what is Scripture.

However, this places the church in authority over the Bible, for if the church determines what is canon, then the church has final authority.

To say that the church determines the canon grossly oversimplifies the process by which we received our Bible. For one, the Old Testament canon was received as complete in Jesus’ day. In today’s passage, Jesus refers to the traditional Jewish division of the Old Testament: the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (“Psalms” being a first-century designation for the section now called the “Writings”). The canon referred to here, scholars note, is identical to the Protestant Old Testament canon and did not include the apocrypha.

With regard to the New Testament, early church councils did discuss which books were to be received into the canon. However, as the canon was formed, the church did not speak of being the body that confers authority upon it. Rather, it was said that the church “receives” certain books as Scripture. Just as we receive Christ without conferring authority on Him, so too does the church receive Scripture as authoritative without conferring authority upon it.

Moreover, there was never any debate about the vast majority of the New Testament books. Only a few books were ever questioned, largely because only isolated pockets of believers had access to them during the earliest days of the church. However, once it became clear that the disputed books were associated with an apostle and taught apostolic doctrine, the debate over them ceased, and the church universal recognized that they too were inspired by God.

The Canon of the Bible

The English Bible is composed of 66 books. How do we know that these books and no others are the infallible and inerrant Word of God? The basic answer to this question is that when men wrote these books, they came to be aware that they had written the Word of God. Right away, the community of the faithful recognized that these books were the Word of God because the Spirit of God caused them to recognize the Master's voice. Thus, right away, each new book was added to the collection that Moses had begun. This process went on during the Old Testament times and continued in the New Testament. We see this process in action in 2 Peter 3:16, where Peter refers to Paul's letters as already part of the canon (list) of Scripture.

Still, how do we know today that some books have not been lost? How do we answer those who claim that the canon of the Bible did not come into existence until the fourth century a.d.? To answer these questions we must look at the early days of church history.

During the second century a.d., the heretic Marcion produced a list of his approved books of the Bible. Marcion held that the Old Testament God was an evil god of wrath, so he eliminated the Old Testament and those places in the New Testament that favorably referred to the God of the Old Testament. To answer Marcion, the church formulated once and for all the list of true books of the Bible.

For the most part, the church simply listed the books that had always been recognized as the Word of God. Questions were raised about a few short New Testament books, like Jude and the letters of John, but the church determined that these were truly Scripture because they had always been recognized as apostolic, and because there was nothing suspicious about their content. A couple of other books, such as the First Letter of Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, were proposed for inclusion, but the church did not include them because the authors of these books themselves indicate a clear difference between their authority and the authority of the apostles. None of the other books in circulation were seriously considered because they were obvious frauds.


Since the beginning,

our aim has been to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to share it, and how to live it…

More about Renewing Your Mind