Biblical Canon Part 2 – How were the books of the New Testament chosen?

Have you ever wondered why Christians say that the books of the New Testament are the inspired Word of God, but other books written about the same time and about the same subjects are not? What about the Gospel of Thomas? Or the Shepherd of Hermas? Were these taken out of the Bible over the course of time as some would have you believe? Let’s talk about it.

If you have not already read it, I would suggest before you dig in here, read the post Biblical Canon Part 1 – How were the books of the Old Testament chosen?  This will give you a great starting point for what we are going to talk about here.

Just as the Old Testament was written by and about prophets of God who made impossible predictions, did miraculous things, or chronicled the history of the people of Israel, the books and letters of the New Testament were written either by one of the best friends of Jesus Christ, or were written by one of their followers on their behalf (like a biography). These authors included Peter, Paul, James, John, and Matthew. Some of their followers wrote a few books as well, including Luke and Mark who were followers of Peter and Paul. Every one of these authors walked and talked with Jesus during His life and ministry, watched the things happen that they wrote about, and then went and spread the news to others after His death and resurrection (with the exception of Paul, who met Jesus post-resurrection).

These men were all present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on them and inspired them to preach the Gospel in languages they did not know, which was a miraculous sign to all of those around them who did know those languages. Jesus commanded them to go and preach His Gospel to all nations, with the help of His Holy Spirit. These men were miracle workers just like Jesus was. Paul and Peter even raised people from the dead. Paul himself was raised from the dead after he was stoned by the prayers of those companions who were with him. God’s authority was in these men, so it is fitting that their books be considered as authoritative words of God. In 97 AD, 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Clement of Rome wrote that the Apostles are the foundation of our faith.

Throughout the life and teaching of the apostles, no book was needed. They were actively preaching, healing, starting churches, and writing letters of encouragement to the churches they started. However, after the apostles were martyred for their faith (every one of them with the exception of John), the early church(es) relied on those teachings they had received from the Apostles, who had started their churches. It was at this point that church leaders around the world put the words of the Apostles together into a single book (much the same idea as the canon of the Old Testament). There are lists of the books of the New Testament virtually identical to what our New Testaments contain today that date back to the early second century.

In the mid-second century, a man named Marcion challenged the more commonly accepted canon of the New Testament because he rejected the entire Old Testament and any part of the New Testament that seemed to support Judaism in the slightest, arguing that it portrayed a different God than the one Jesus talked about. He attempted to gain support for his own canon, which became known as the Marcion Canon, which only included the Gospel of Luke, Paul’s letters, and an extra letter that Paul supposedly wrote to the church at Alexandria. Leaders of the church met to decide this issue in AD 144, and after hearing all sides of the story they excommunicated Marcio as a heretic.

10 years later a man named Montanus came around with 2 prophetesses and started telling Christians about visions they had had from God and purporting an end of the Age of Christ and the start of the Age of the Holy Spirit with ‘new prophecies’. This spurred the Church to come up with a set of rules (that had not been necessary until this time) to determine what was ‘canon’ and what was not. Could new books be added? Or was the Canon closed?

The rules they came up with are the following:

  1. Was the book written by a prophet of God?
  2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? (did the author do miracles that were witnessed by others during his ministry?)
  3. Does the message tell the truth about God?
  4. Did it come with the power of God? (was the message convicting and contain the authority of someone writing for God?)
  5. Was it accepted by God’s people?

The Muratorian Fragment, which dates back to about 190 AD, has the exact list of New Testament books we use now, with 3 extra books. These extra books were the Revelation of Peter, The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Shepherd of Hermas, which were later redacted from the Canon because, although useful to some extent for Christian instruction (like a modern Christian book would be), they did not meet all 5 criteria for canonicity listed above.

The first Canon that we have that matches what is in our Bibles today dates back to 367 AD, a list in an Easter letter written by the Church leader Athanasius. In 393 this list was affirmed by the Synod of Hippo (a council of church leaders from all over the world), and in 397 it was published by the Council of Carthage (another council of church leaders from all over the world), who affirmed it.

So think twice when someone tells you that books were taken out of the Bible. Our Canon of the New Testament has been just about identical to what it is today since the Apostles died in the late first century. The books and letters were written by those who knew Jesus best and were the closest to what He actually said and did, making them the most trustworthy witnesses. We can rely on these writings to tell us the truth about Jesus and the facts surrounding the spread of the Christian faith in the first century.

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