CH101 - The First Century

The Primitive Church - 30 - 100 AD
The New Testament Canon, Part 1

The New Testament Canon, Part 1
The most commonly asked question directed at me when I speak on university campuses or in churches is, "How was the New Testament formed?" Because the church has always believed that the documents found in the NT are "inspired" writings and the most important source documents for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (and Christian doctrine), this is not only a good question, but a critical one.

My initial understanding of this issue took place around 30 years ago when I took a New Testament survey course as a freshman in college. Our text was Merrill Tenney's New Testament Survey (Eerdmans 1961). In this text Tenney presents the following criteria to have been observed by the early church in the formation of the canon:
- the author must have either been an apostle or a close associate of an apostle
- the document cannot contradict other "inspired" writings with respect to doctrinal teaching
- the document must share the overall "feel" and "character" of other inspired writings, AND
- it must have been cited by early Christian writers and be accepted by the majority of churches

Although these criteria sound reasonable, one cannot find a clearly described methodology like this in the patristic writings. Many early writings were accepted as inspired by some church fathers, yet failed to meet one or more of these conditions.

I believe Tenney must have also mentioned that the canon was confirmed at a church council - this point stuck in my head for years and many people have echoed this belief over the years. In fact, the exact list of NT documents was confirmed at the third Synod of Carthage (397 AD), but this was only a regional council and by this time the 27 NT documents had already been agreed upon by most of the church...but there were some exceptions.

A Natural Delivery
The NT was NOT dropped from heaven.
The NT was NOT delivered by an angel.
The NT was NOT dug up in a farmer's field as golden plates like the Book of Mormon.
The NT was NOT suddenly "discovered" in a clay jar with 27 "books" intact like the Dea Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi texts.

The NT canon developed, or evolved, over the course of the first 250-300 years of Christian history. If the NT had been delivered by an angel, or unearthed as a complete unit it would not be as believable. Part of the historical validity of the NT comes from the fact that we can trace its development, albeit not as precisely as we might like.

I will attempt to trace this development from the introduction of the gospels to the highly disputed Revelation of St John. I intend to do this in several parts, along with the content of the first four centuries, so you can "see" this development within the proper historical context.

Oral Tradition
Oral tradition was the normal mode for communicating the teachings of a master in the ancient world. For one thing, before the use of papyrus was widespread writing was both clumsy and expensive. Using a stylus on a clay tablet worked, but once the clay dried no "corrections" or "edits" could be made. Writing on a scroll made of an animal skin was certainly an improvement, but was still limited. The widespread use of papyrus for the ancient world was like the coming of the internet in the modern world - a virtual explosion of written communication began.

Once great teachings began to circulate in written form ancient writers continued to be skeptical of using the written word. There was a sense that it fell far short for the communication of treasured knowledge. Church historian Eusebius relates this thinking from the fragments of Papias,

But I will not hesitate also to set down for thy benefit, along with the interpretations, all that ever I carefully learnt and carefully recalled from the elders, guaranteeing its truth....For I supposed that things out of books did not profit me so much as the utterances of a voice which liveth and abideth. -  H.E. III.39,3-4

Irenaeus (A.H. V.33,3-4) quotes another passage from Papias where the author tells us that he knew the apostle John. This represents one of the earliest references to an early oral tradition within Christianity - Papias is writing down what he remembered hearing from the mouth of John, Polycarp, and others - so he is writing down oral tradition.

Oral Tradition and the words of Jesus
The words of Jesus were recognized as inspired very soon after the resurrection, yet it was 2-3 decades before his words were circulated in written form. We have one clear example of oral tradition in the NT when Paul is addressing the Ephesian elders,

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' " -  Acts 20:35

This citation is especially interesting since Luke, the author of Acts, does not record this saying in his own gospel. In fact, this agrapha, from the Greek word "unwritten," does not appear in any of the four canonical gospels and is a witness to the sayings of Jesus being transmitted in an oral tradition.

Go to the next page:
 -  The New Testament Canon, Part 2
 -  The New Testament Canon, Part 3
 -  The New Testament Canon, Part 4
 -  The New Testament Canon, Part 5

Download the paper, How the New Testament Canon was Formed

top of page

Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
You can send an email to directly to me Al Baker, CH101.
CH101 retains the right to edit and post comments/questions unless you specifically ask that your comments NOT be posted. Comments that are personal or private are never posted...only questions about Church History, the Bible, etc.