How did we get the New Testament (NT)? Dan Brown (of The Da Vinci Code fame) and others have long speculated that church councils conspired to throw out certain books of the Bible that would give us a story of Jesus different than ones we are familiar with now. Was there such a conspiracy, or did Christians basically recognize what was authentic and authoritative early on in the history of the faith? How did Christianity come up with the current 27 books of the New Testament?
Thankfully, we do have records from the early church that give us much of the information we need. We have the testimony of early church theologians (usually called “the church fathers”), manuscript evidence, and other historical records from the first four centuries of Christianity that tell us how the New Testament was collected and agreed upon by the faithful.
1. Testimony of the church fathers.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (A.D. 35-107) provided one of the earliest testimonies outside of the original apostles to tell us what was going on in the early church. He quoted the following books as divinely inspired: Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Jude, and Revelation.
Here is a video from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary about the early church fathers:
Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) mentioned “the memoirs of the apostles” and spoke of them as on the same level as “the writings of the prophets.” He used the formula “it is written” when quoting the four Gospels, thus putting Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the same plane as the Old Testament (OT).
Polycarp (A.D. 69-155) and Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) refer to the OT and NT books with the same phrase “as it is said in these Scriptures.” They obviously revered many of these NT books from the outset with the same reverence they had for books of the OT.
Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202) listed all four Gospels, Acts, all of Paul’s epistles, plus the letter to the Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Jude, and Revelation. Why weren’t all 27 books of the NT immediately recognized as scripture? We must remember several things that were going on during these tumultuous times.
First, Christianity spread over the Roman Empire (and beyond) at lightning speed. Christian “colonies” were planted across incredibly vast territories. By the end of the first century, there were Christian communities from modern-day Spain and Britain to India (the Apostle Thomas took the Gospel to India and died a martyr’s death there).
Christian churches were planted from modern-day southern Russia to Ethiopia! That’s a lot of territory. People did not carry complete Bibles with them… they were fortunate to have just two or three books of the Bible. So, not all the scattered “colonies” of Christians knew what literature was out there, what books were accepted as authoritative, and which ones were questioned or rejected.
Origen (A.D. 185-254) compiled three lists or categories of Christian literature. The first list contained the books the church universally accepted: all four Gospels, Acts, 13 letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. The second list contained books that were questioned or disputed, but not rejected: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. However, 2 John and Jude were accepted by that time by such notables as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and the “Muratorian Fragment” (more about that later).
Finally, in the third list were the books that no one accepted. These would be books such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Thomas. It is significant that the books found in list 3 never made it into the New Testament. The early church spotted these frauds early on and warned the faithful.
Finally, Jerome (A.D. 347-420) and Augustine (A.D. 354-430) were quoting every verse as we have it now in the current New Testament. In fact, every verse was quoted at least once by a church theologian who accepted it as the very words of God, and thus authoritative for the whole church.
2. Ancient Manuscripts.
The earliest list of New Testament books is called the “Muratorian Fragment” (named after the 18th century Italian priest who discovered it). This parchment is a Latin manuscript of a Greek list, and it is only an incomplete list. Even skeptical scholars admit the list dates from about A.D. 170.
It includes: all four Gospels, Acts, all 13 of Paul’s epistles, 1 and 2 John, Jude, and Revelation. It also has two “unusual” books at the end: the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. It lists the core of the NT as we have it today, plus two extra.
We don’t know if whoever wrote this list thought of the last two books as holy Scripture; literature was mighty hard to come by for the Christians, so it could be that these last two books were merely considered profitable reading but not equal to Scripture. At any rate, the same list also mentions spurious books attributed to Paul (an “epistle to the Laodiceans”) and states that “some of us are not willing that the Apocalypse of Peter be read in church.” No such warning exists about the other books.
We currently have over 5,800 manuscripts of the Greek NT, with thousands more in Latin and Syriac. Many of these manuscripts dating from the second to the fourth and fifth centuries contain the books of the NT as we have them today.
We also have the lectionaries (daily Bible readings) from the ancient church, along with the commentaries of the church fathers. If we had no manuscripts at all of the NT, we could still recreate the entire NT from quotations of the church fathers and the lectionaries (minus about 11 verses).
The NT books as we have them today were the single most treasured, copied, and translated books of the ancient world. There were other books that were valued by the early church as profitable (such as “Shepherd of Hermas” and “The Didache”), and sometimes they were even found in copies of the New Testament (such as Codex Sinaiticus or Codex Vaticanus), but the Church as a whole never recognized them as having the same authority as the 27 books we call the New Testament.
Why is that? The early church looked for books that were written by the apostles (Matthew, John, Peter) or their close associates (Mark, Luke). These books had to be written in the time of the apostles. Books such as the Gospel of Thomas did not appear until the second century, at least 100 years after the time of the apostles.
Next, the church looked for books that were sound theologically. Books that taught the deity, majesty, and sinlessness of Christ were accepted. Books that taught Gnosticism, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were rejected.
Here are some helpful videos from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary about Gnosticism and other early Christian heresies:
Occasionally, even some of the church fathers were confused: Irenaeus once quoted the spurious book “The Shepherd of Hermas” as Scripture, but his comments would be an exception to the rule.
3. Church councils.
Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter of A.D. 367 finally ratified what was already the consensus of the Church throughout the Roman Empire. The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) also affirmed Athanasius’ list. The 27 books of the NT were recognized as the Word of God, and in the same order that they appear in our current Bibles.
Here is another helpful Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary video about church creeds and councils:
So, did any church council create the canon (the standard list) and throw out a whole bunch of books that should have “made it?” No.
The facts of history are that spurious books such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Gospel of Peter, etc. were not written in the era of the apostles, did not line up with the teachings of the New Testament, and were not universally considered as scripture by the church. What the councils did was simply ratify what had already been revered, copied, and preached for 300 years. The other spurious books had excluded themselves by their aberrant teachings.
Noted NT scholar Bruce Metzger (in his interview with Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus) gave the best summary about this process of the formation of the New Testament:
“The canon [the accepted list of 27 books] was not the result of a series of contests involving church politics. The canon is rather the separation that came about because of the intuitive insight of Christian believers. They could hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John; they could hear it only in a muffled and distorted way in the Gospel of Thomas, mixed in with a lot of other things…
“Let’s get several academies of musicians to make a pronouncement that the music of Bach and Beethoven is wonderful. I would say ‘thank you for nothing! We knew that before the pronouncement was made.’ We know it because of sensitivity to what is good music and what is not. The same is with the canon.” (The Case for Christ, p 72).
And that is what happened, ladies and gentlemen. The Christians of the ancient world accepted 23 of the 27 books of the New Testament immediately. They questioned, but never rejected books that many Christians in parts of the Roman Empire had already revered: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John. After long and careful examination, the church universally accepted these books as well.