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For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.401-412; R.H.Gundry, pp.85-88. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.487-500.

The Greek word kanōn originally meant a 'reed' or 'cane', later 'a measuring rod', then a 'standard or 'rule'.  The word came to mean the list of sacred books accepted by the church as authoritative in matters of faith and life and, in terms of the NT, the 27 books acknowledged as documents of divine revelation.


W.Barclay makes the comment:

"The most surprising thing about the making of the NT is the length of time it required. The first time that we meet a list of NT books exactly the same as our list today is in the 39th Easter Letter of Athanasius which was written in A.D. 367. That is to say, it took more than 300 years for the NT to reach its final form. [1]

Why the delay in writing?
Here are some reasons why no NT book was written until after c.A.D. 50:

  1. The young church was more concerned about mission than writing books

  2. The belief in the imminent return of Christ made writing unnecessary

  3. The use of the Old Testament (LXX) retarded writing (Acts 17:11)

  4. Oral tradition met the early needs of the church.  People could memorise the sayings and stories of Jesus and share them in their Christian community

  5. There may have been difficulty in obtaining adequate information

  6. The cost of materials may have been a contributive factor.

A Book of Testimonies
Some scholars believe that the earliest Christian work was a 'Book of Testimonies', made up of OT proof texts which related to Jesus Christ. These would be used by preachers and teachers in the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of new Christians.  It may be that a well known Papias quotation refers to this kind of project.  He wrote: "So when Matthew recorded the oracles (ta logia) in the Hebrew tongue, and each interpreted them to the best of his ability...". [2]

A number of scholars believe that 'the oracles' are the proof texts contained in Matthew's Gospel (e.g., Mt.1:23; 2:6,15,18,23; 4:15,16; 8:17; 12:18-21; 13:35; 21:5; 27:9,10).


While the apostles were still alive the 'work and words' (Acts 1:1) of Jesus could be checked by apostolic tradition and authority.  It may well be that, anticipating the passing of the apostles, Christians requested a permanent record for reference.  This argument is reasonable, although it may be said that "there were undoubtedly many motives which would lead to the production of the Gospels" (D.Guthrie).  The same could be said for the rest of the NT - the early church would want a record of the teaching of the apostles, which was based on the Lord's work and words. Consider these four main motives for a written NT:

  • Liturgical. The church needed the NT for its worship.

  • Apologetical. The church needed the NT in order to defend its faith.

  • Catechetical. The church needed the NT for the teaching of converts.

  • Evangelical. The church needed the NT in preaching the gospel.


The 27 books were written by a number of different writers for different reasons over a period of time.  It took time for them to be brought together as a canon. A.M.Hunter says, "The process was largely informal and unofficial". [3]

The first books to be written
The epistles were the first books to be written - the Gospels came last. The contents of the letters indicate that they were mainly written to meet the needs and problems of local churches. The books were written out of necessity - they were 'occasional letters'.

Then, "We can imagine how, from the very first, apostolic writings were treasured by the churches. First the letters of Paul and then the Gospels would be passed round, copied, and preserved. They would be read when Christians met together in fellowship and worship" (N.J.Bull). [4]

Reading the works with the OT Scriptures
The NT church read the OT Scriptures in all their meetings.  Justin Martyr (c.A.D. 150) records that when Christians gathered on Sundays "the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.  Then the reader ceases, and the president speaks, admonishing us and exhorting us to imitate these excellent examples". [5] As the letters of the apostles were read alongside the OT books their divine authority was recognised.  2 Pet.3:15-16 indicates how Paul's letters became equated with Scripture this way. The 'voice of God' would be recognised in the public reading.  The recognition of the NT books was part of a dynamic process which involved the community of the church.


Note these four groups:

The Homologoumena - the books accepted by all - the criteria
The apostolic fathers quoted from a number of books as inspired, for example, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen made wide use of NT Scriptures in teaching, controversy and biblical commentaries.  The criteria that marked a work included its apostolicity, doctrinal content, universality and the hallmark of inspiration.  The main tests were those of public lection and apostolicity.

The Antilogomena - the books disputed by some
A.M.Hunter states: "By the year 200 the main contents of the NT had been decided.  Only seven of our 27 books, Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John and Revelation remained in doubt".  He makes this conclusion on the basis of the Muratorian Canon which lists the books deemed to be canonical by the church of Rome at the end of the second century.

The Apocrypha - the books accepted by a few
These books included: Epistle of Barnabas (c.A.D. 70-79), 1 Clement (c.A.D. 96), Shepherd of Hermes (c.A.D. 100), the Didache (c.A.D. 100-120), and the Apocalypse of Peter (c.A.D. 150).

The Pseudipigrapha - the books rejected by all
For example: The Gospel of Thomas (early 1st century), The Acts of Peter (2nd century), and The Lost Epistle to the Corinthians (2-3rd century).


How did the NT canon finally come to be closed? Several influences may be seen:

Heresy affected the church's thoughts on its canon, creeds and clergy.  Marcion (A.D. 140) rejected the OT and had an incomplete NT.  He accepted the Gospel of Luke (with omissions) together with the ten epistles of Paul.  Marcion was condemned by Irenaeus and Tertullian.

Competition was another factor.  The rejected and disputed books that grew up with those later accepted as canonical, moved the church to make decisions about its Scriptures.

Persecution caused the church to sort out the writings that were really important, that is, important for preservation and worth dying for! The Emperor Diocletian's edict of A.D. 303 called for the destruction of all sacred books used by the church.


By the 4th century the canon was fixed in both the Eastern and Western sectors of the church.  In the East the 39th Easter Letter of Athanasius named the 27 books (A.D. 367); in the West the canon was fixed by conciliar decision at Carthage in A.D. 397.  The Council of Hippos (A.D. 393) had earlier verified the list of 27 books.  Again, we emphasise, Synods and Councils played a very minor role in the debate - the church and its canon grew up dynamically together.


1. W.Barclay,The Making of the Bible, London, Lutterworth, 1961, p.43.

2. Papias, "Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord", in Eusebius, H.E.III, 39. 

3. See: H.Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p.27.

4. A.M.Hunter,Introducing the New Testament, p.14.

5. N.J.Bull,The Rise of the Church, p.95.

6. Justin Martyr, First Apology, I, lxvii.  See: H.Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p.67.

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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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