New Testament Canon:

How Do We Know They Got the Right Books?

I. Development of the Canon


Martin Franzmann (The Word of the Lord Grows, St Louis: Concordia, 1961, 287-295) traces the development of the canon in three stages:

*First Stage: 100-170:

In this stage there is no discussion of a canon. There is informal use of the NT writings but their usage indicates authoritative status. "What we do find in the Writings of the So called Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, Epistle of Barnabas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, the Teaching of the Twelve) is first a witness to the fact that the books destined to become the New Testament canon are there, at work in the church from the first...the influence of all types of New Testament writings (Epistles, Gospels,Johannine works, Pauline letters, catholic letters) is clearly decreeable. To judge by the evidence of this period the four Gospels and the letters of Paul were everywhere the basic units in the emerging canon of the New Testament." (Franzmann, 288)

Franzmann doesn't mention it directly but by implication (see quotation above) other books were also read in this period, but their use was unevenly speared through different churches. Each local church had it's own canon. They shared most of the New Testament writings but also preferred their own "local books," for example The Shaped of Hermas was popular in Rome (it's place of origin) and The Didache in Syria (Streeter, the Primitive Church).
At the end of this period the church is forced to deal with the question of a canon directly for the first time. The Heretic Marcion rejected the OT and revised the book of Luke. He presented a canon consisting only of his revised Luke and the letter of Paul minus the Pastoral Epistles.

*Second Stage, 170-220

The elements already present are firmed up. "Fourth fifths of the Chruche's eventual canon is already established beyond debate (Franzmann). The major documents which attest to the canon in this period are a report form the church's in Vienne and Lyon of a persecution they had undergone, sent to Asia Minor, and a work by Theophilus Bishop of Antioch in Syria. Neither list includes all 27 books, but they are substantially identical to the list we have today, and since the subject of neither work was specifically canonicity we cannot be sure why certain books aren't mentioned. The major church "Fathers" of this period are Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian of Carthage. Their writings include all the 27 books except 2nd Peter. They show that there was unanimous agreement on all the books accept those that latter were disputed at the council of Niecia: Hebrews, Revelation, James, second Peter, second and third John, Judea and Revelation (which is why all of these are at the Back of the NT).

The other major document of this period is the Moratoria Fragment: The document was discovered by a Librarian in Milan in 1740, the librarian's name was Moratoria. It gives us a complete picture of the church at Rome in AD 170. The Muratorian includes 22 books, those omitted are Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, James, and one of the shorter letters of John. The document also includes a Revelation of Peter, Although it notes "some of us don't want it read in church." The Wisdom of Solemn is included but the Shaped of Hermas is rejected for it's early origin. But it is noted as not used in church.

*Third Stage: 220-400:

Origen, an Alexandrian theologian of the 3d century knew all 27 books of the Canon and was the first to take note of 2 Peter. Dionysius of Alexandrian, Origen's student, doubts the Johonnine authorship of Revelation but accepts its authority. When Euesbius, the first great historian of the Chruch discusses the canon in his Ecclesiastic Histories (325) he still has no official body of decision to appeal to. He doubts the works that were contested, Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Hebrews. But what he does not doubt is the tradition that establishes the truth of Christ. He documents all ancient sources he can find, mainly Papias and Ireaeus, and others, the Bishop's lists, and expresses faith in the handing on the knowledge of truth. Cyril of Jerusalem in 350 recommends a 26 books canon (excluding Revelation) as "books recommended by all" (Franzmann 293).

"The 27 book canon...established itself in the early centuries of the church and maintained itself in the continued life of the church...they [the books of the canon] are what Athenasius called them, 'the wellsprings of salvation.' (Franzmann, 295).

II. Development of the Early Tradition

A. General attestation and Apostolic authority

"...There is some specific witness in these writings [Clement of Rome, Epistle of Barnabas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, Teaching of the Twelve Apostles] to the fact that the New Testament writings assumed a position of authority in the church which they share with no other writings. The "Lord" and "The Apostles" appear as authoritative voices along side Old Testament Scriptures... [in the first stage--100-170] ... Justin Martyr [records] the New Testament writings or at least the four Gospels were read in worship service in worship services of the Church interchangeably with the Lot Testament. ...the fact of public reading in the churches became for later generations one of the prime criteria for canonicity..." (Franzmann, 288)

B. Safeguarding the Tradition and Passing it on.

1) Evidence of an early Organized Chain of Testimony.

Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (c.130) Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord.

"I shall not hesitate to set down for you along with my interpretations all things which I learned from the elders with care and recorded with care, being well assured of their truth. For unlike most men, I took pleasure not in those that have much to say but in those that preach the truth, not in those that record strange precepts but in those who record such precepts as were given to the faith by the Lord and are derived from truth itself. Besides if ever any man came who had been a follower of the elders, I would enquire about the sayings of the elders; what Andrew said, or Peter or Philip or Thomas, or James, or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord's deciples; and what Aristion says, and John the Elder, who are dciples of the Lord. For I did not consider that i got so much from the content of books as from the utterences of living and abiding voices..." (Documents of the Christian Church, edited by Henry Bettonson, Oxford University press 1963, 27).

F.F. Bruce, an Evangelical Scholar and highly respected in most circles, tells us: "Eusebius tells us on the authority of Papias and other early writers that at a late date Philip's four prophetic daughters were famed in the church for authorities in the history of its earliest days." (The New Testament Documents, p.43) Here again, as with the "Elder" quote above we have evidence of an organized effort to remember and preserve the tradition of the Church as it was handed on form one generation to another. IT also indicates that the tradition was passed on by those who were either eyewitnesses, or closely related to the actual events.

This is a very crucial link because there is first, the tantalizing notion of two John's who were eyewitnesses (and perhaps Biblical authors)? To the Lord. There is the Apostle John and the "Elder John." Secondly, this famous quotation is misleading because it indicates that Papias only learned of the Elders through others who relayed the testimony. But it is easy to forget or discount the evidence, clear though it is, that Papias had close personal contact with the actual "Elders" of whom he speaks, at lest Aristion and the "Elder John" but apparently they were decipels. The evidence for this comes form Papias himself who relates long oral traditions related to him by these "elders." Eusebius writes "in his writings he transmits other narratives of the words of the Lord which came form the afore mentioned Aristion and others which came from John the Elder" (in Bettenson, p27). But there is also an amazing turn of phrased Eusebius uses that, "'the elder used to say this also: Mark became the interpreter of Peter and wrote down accurately, but not in order, as much as he remembered...'" And here Eusebius is quoting Papias. This phrase "the elder used to say..." indicates a personal aquantiance in more than one meeting.(Ibid.). Here we may have a direct link form eye witness to Apostolic "father."

1 Clement, the earliest known extra-canonical Christian writing, AD 95, from the church of Rome to that of Corinth documents the presence of Peter and Paul in Rome, their martyrdom and their teachings, and counts them as "our generation." Let us take the Nobel examples of our own generation...the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted and battled to death. Let us set before our eyes the Nobel Apostles; Peter..went to the glorious place for which he was merited...Paul..." (5:2-5 in Richarson and Fairweather, et al. Early Christian Fathers, New York: MacMillian, 1970 p.45-46). a foot note of the editor adds that this is good evidence for Peter's martyrdom in Rome (fn Ibid.).

2) Apostolic Succession Documented Form Eearly Period.

1 Clement, written in AD 95 documents that the Apostles selected successors to pass on the teaching and the tradition, and that only those chosen out of this chain could be leaders. "The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ...and so the Apostles after receiving their orders and being fully convinced by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and being assured by God's word went out in the confidence of the Holy Spirit to preach the good News of God's Kingdom...and appointed their first converts after testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of future believers." This is a remarkable quote because just 30 years after Paul it lays out the basic outline of the tradition itself and asserts the major safeguarding mechanism; apostolic ascendance. Again he says:


"Now Our Apostles, thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that there was going to be strife over the title of Bishop. It was for this reason and because they had been given an accurate knowledge of the future, that they appointed the officers we have mentioned, furthermore, they later added a codicil to the effect that should these die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. In light of this we view it as breach of justice to remove from their ministry those who were appointed either by them (Apostles] or later on and with the whole church's consent those in proper standing..." (Ibid).

This is a remarkable passage because it demonstrates not only the earliest known formation of Apsolstic accidence, but it was written only a little over 60 years form the original Gospel events and a little over 30 years form the death of Paul. In this context they could have actually been discussing the unseating of Bishops who were appointed by Paul or Peter, or some Pauline circle insider. (Clement was writing from Rome to Corinth over a dispute as to the office of Bishop and apparently some Presbyters had been unseated).

This places us just one link away form the words of the Apostles, Papias talked with those who followed the Apostles. This demonstrates their historicity, and also the validity of the tradition.

C. Apostolic "Father's" Document Four Gospels and Other Books

Papias is criticized as a witness because Eusebius says that he lacked intelligence, but he also praises his erudition (Ibid.) This is no reason to discount his testimony. According to Eusebius Papias documents that Mark became the interpreter of Peter, and that he based his Gospel on the Testimony of Peter. He also documents that Matthew first wrote his Gospel in Hebrew as a list of sayings (Logia) and later turned it into a narrative. (Ibid).

Iraneaus, Bishop of Layons near the end of the second century in Against Hearses Also agrees with Papias in recording that Matthew Published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, and that Mark was the interpreter of Peter and took his Gospel from Peter's memories. (Bettenson 28). He also documents that Luke produced his Gospel based upon the Testimony of Paul and that John produced his Gospel last in Ephesus in Asia Minor. (Ibid)

Ignatious Bishop of Antioch documents the use and veneration of more than one of the four Gospels (Bruce, 23). He also documents the knowledge of Paul's letter to the Ephesians in his letter to the Ephesians, which, if it were not genuine, would cause them to say "what letter?" (Richardson, 90).

The Muratorian Framgment also documents these connections and lists all the Epistles of Paul, and the Gospels and their authors (Bettenson, 28). Polycarp, Hermas, Barnabas, basically all of the NT 27 books are witnessed and vouched for by the end of the second century.

D. Problems in the Tradition.

1). Weak links.

Evangelical apologetics overstates the case. They would have it that an unbroken line exists form John to Polycarp to Irenaeus who knew for certain of the authorship of the Gospels because he got it from his teacher who was himself taught by the Apostles. In Fact Irenaeus does claim that Polycarp was a "student" of John and knew the Apostles. The Problem is that Irenaeus himself admits that the didn't' know Polycarp. He says only "I saw him once in my youth." That Polycarp knew John is doubted by most major scholars and fairly well debunked by Streeter (see Streeter,The Primitive Church ..)

2) Formation of the Orthodox Position.

The Orthodox church developed out of the situation in the first century. It emerged and was put together over the course of the second and third centuries. Heggesipus said that the church was pure and uncorrupted but we know from the New Testament that there were many factions and more than one voice represented. This forms the basis of the skeptic's attacks.

3) Arguments against Apostolic authorship

The consensus in Scholarly circles today is that the communities produced the Gospels.. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 1989). There is no real evidence against it, but there are some good scholarly works that demonstrate the unlikely nature of it. (see The Johonnine Circle, Kasemann).

a) The titles "Matthew" "Mark" "Luke" and "John" were added later, and none of these documents claims to have been produced by the persons whose names they bear.

Moreover, this situation opens the door to speculation and leaves the impression that the first 50 years of the Church were just a blank sleight in which anything could have happened and anyone could have been responsible for Church dogma.

b) This impression is enhanced by the fact that the Gospels have clearly been edited ("redacted") and that the first three all follow each other's accounts (the Synoptic problem--most scholars think Mark came first, than Matthew using Mark and "Q" then Luke Using Q< Matthew, and his own L source--see below).

E. Answers

1) The John.>Polycarp>Irenaeus link is not the only link.

Even Assuming that Polycarp did not know John, and that Irenaeus only saw John speak once, this link and other links are still fairly solid, and much stronger than other cases assumed to be historical.

First, Polycarp still unites us with the tradition of the community form an early period. He bridges the gap between the end of Domitian's persecution and the formation of the Orthodox Church. Irenaeus did hear him speak, and presumably did learn something of the basic chain of tradition from him. Moreover, there is clear evidence that Papias had close personal exchanges not only with those who heard the elders but without he "Elders" themselves, if not the Apostles, at least other decibels of the Lord, Arition and the "Elder John." (see above). Meaning that the link at that stage is very strong because it unites our source to actual eye-witnensses.

Secondly, 1 Clement was written only 30 years after Peter and Paul and counts them in the same generation as his contemporaries. Clearly the community in which he lived and the one to which he wrote (Corinth) Still holds Paul (and for Rome Peter too) as living memories, and it is clear that some of those who knew them were still present in either community or both.

Thirdly, Ignatius is almost as close a link as Clement, probably Martyred in 110, but perhaps as early as 99 or as late as 120 (see Richardson). Ignatious was Bishop of Antioch the origin of the name "Christian" and first major Christian City after Jerusalem. IT is more than likely that he had good access to living memory of people such as Timothy and Luke, either directly or through knowledge of those who knew them. Moreover, the Teaching of the Twelve is an amalgam of two or more documents circulating in Syria. The first section called "the two ways" probably dates from late first century, or perhaps 110 AD. This section bears witness to the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the mount, Luke and Mark's Gospels, and other Canonical writings. It also bears witness to the early prophetic aspects of church structure and the early formation of a more rigid structure, the death of the prophetic type of Christian ministry.

Ignatious met Polycarp and wrote to him. This brings out another aspect of the links, that these people were able to confer with each other, to check each other's information and to guard the testimony and keep it pure.

2) Development of Structure from Early Period.

Even though the Church was forced to develop in response to questions of identity, and the structure did evolve as reaction to emerging problems (and this picture can be seen in the Pauline Epistles and Acts as well) the formation of a fairly tight structure can be seen already by the time 1 Clement at the end of the First century. Already there are Bishops and Presbyters, and Clement urges his readers to give them obedience. And 1 Clement documents the choice of Apostolic succession (see above). Ignatious, writing no later than 120 and probably around 110 is fanatical on this point; "where the Bishop is there is the Church." This assured the constancy of the teaching and created the formal link back through the generations to the time of the early community. The formal link of Bishops was in place by the late first century. The first Bishops were selected by the Apostles, and by their associates (even if we discount the pastoral epistles we still have the indications of Paul's greetings and Luke's account in Acts that the Church was forming a structure and choosing leaders trusted and capable of passing on the teachings).

3) Historical connections of the Pauline Circle.


It is easy to think of the early period of the Church as a shadowy era in which anyone could have taken hold of the message, a period in which the truth of the original Gospel events is lost to us forever, and a period in which the names of the participants, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Mary, ect. become mythological symbols rather than historical people. But the Testimony of the Pauline circle interjects some historical reality into this situation. While the accounts in Acts and Luke no doubt have their flaws and their biases, there is no good reason to doubt Luke's authorship. Lukes connection to Paul ties Acts to the history of the church. Paul's own writings demonstrate the links between himself and Peter, James, and other members of the Church. These are not mythological figures but real people (and James and John the Baptist are documented by Joseph's in passages no one questions). Luke also ties us to an eyewitness in another way, that Theopholis who he wrote to was probably an eyewitness to some of the major events which is why they are left out of the account. Paul wrote just 20 -30 years after the Gospel events. He knew many of the eyewitnesses, learning the Gospel (he says form revelation of Jesus) but also from Anas and others. Timothy, Pricilla and Aquilla, Apollos, and the other major insiders become links in the historical chain. Through Paul's writings it is easier to see that in the Gospel narratives we are dealing with historical connections.

4) Authorship of Gospels

a) Apostolic authorship

Evangelical Scholars would say that I am underselling the case. I would rather understate it than to overstate. But Apostolic authorship of the Gospels is attested by Iranaeus, Ignatius, Papias, Polycarp, Barnabus, Hermas, and others. The traditions of Apostolic authorship were already set in place by the early second century. Moreover Clement knows of Pails letter's to the Corinthian church and other Pauline letters, as does Ignatius and others. There are good reasons to affirm Apostolic authorship.

b) Community authorship.

No one doubts the authorship of the non-Pastoral Pauline letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, and others and most admit that whoever wrote Hebrews was a Pauline insider). In the matter of the Gospels, even if they were produced by "the community" (meaning redacted at various points and emerging out of the testimony within the communities and not the work of a single Apostolic figure) they still carry the authority of the community. They are the on links we have to the teachings of Jesus and they are good links. There is reason why the community itself couldn't function to keep it's own testimony stairght, and there is evidence that it did. Why would a community of God fearing Jews, people who believed that any infraction of the law was deadly, people who would be dead to family and friends, people which a fierce nationalistic hope for liberation from a dominating foreign power, just up and follow a man simply because he claimed to be the religious leader they expected? This does not guarantee the miracles of Christ, but it does indicate that the community had to have some good reasons for forming itself together as the community which followed this man. And those reasons must be indicative of something remarkable that occurred among them. As such the community would be the perfect orbit of its own tradition and would go against any attempted to alter or embellish it.

If we accept community authorship, what becomes of these historical links? They do not disappear, they still represent the tradition in action, they still indicate that from a very early period these particular works, the four Gospels, and others were esteemed in the church and thought of as the major works bearing the testimony.

"No one is likely to deny that a tradition that is being handed on by word of mouth is likely to undergo modification. This is bound to happen, unless the tradition has been rigidly formulated and has been learned with careful safeguard against the intrusion of error" (Stephen Neil, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1961, London: University of Oxford Press, 1964, p.250) Neil adds in a fn: "This is exactly the way in which the tradition was handed on among the Jews. IT is precisely on this ground that Scandinavian scholar H. Risenfeld in an essay entitled "The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings" (1957) has passed some rather severe strictures on the form cuticle method. See also M. Dibelius..." Neil goes to on to say that there is some "flexibility" in the transmission, but nothing that would change the basic facts or the thrust of the teaching otherwise, "But there is a vast difference between recognition of this kind of flexibility, of this kind of creative working of the community on existing traditions, and the idea that the community simply invented and read back into the life of Jesus things that he had never done, and words that he had never said. When carried to its extreme this method suggests that the community had far greater creative power than the Jesus of Nazareth, faith in whom had called the community into being." (Ibid.).

The writing of the Gospels the power of the stories and the force of the character of Jesus require a kind of literary genius not possible to find in the transmission of community word. "To sum up so much spiritual truth so simply, so briefly, and in such unforgettable images, demands creative genius of the highest possible caliber. Who in the early Christian groups had such genius? (Neil, 251). See also the quotation on the resurrection page by an anthropologist which shows that it takes a long time, possibly hounders of years for myths to develop into elaborate bodies of belief and in set forms which are seen in the four Gospels, with certain details intact in each account and the basic frame of the narrative intact. This indicates that the narrative was handed on in strict observance of the fact without alteration on major points form an early time. The order of periscopes (units of story) are changed to fit the point being made, (the flexibility) but the basic facts remain mostly the same (the sermon on the mount becomes the sermon on the plain [form Matt. To Luke) but the content of it is virtually identical. The key to understanding the passage of material is in the worshiping community. The purpose of the Gospels and the relation and transmission of the material revolved around the needs of the community worship according to Neil, more than of preaching or apologetics. Thus the need to keep the story stairght.

III. Heratics Venerate Canonical Books

"Another piece of evidence for the authority exercised by the New Testament writings is the fact that Heretics such as the Gnostics Basilides and Valentinus, appeal to them and sought by reinterpritation to base their teachings upon them." (Ibid, 279).

"It is evident form the recently discovered writings of the Gnostic school of Valentines that before the middle of the second century most of the New Testament books were as Well known and as fully venerated in that heretical circle as they were in the Catholic Church" (Bruce, 19) (fn F.L. Cross the Jung Codex 1955). Much is often made of the "other Christians" and their works left out of the Canon, but even the enemies of the Orthodox accepted the canonical books.

IV. What was left out of the Canon?

The major struggle over the Canon was around the books left out, not those included. Some of the included books were contested, but the major struggle was about the books not included and not used by the vast majority of the churches. For the most part, what was included was already functioning as the "defacto New Testament" for most of the Church.

A. Other Orthodox Sources Left out.

Most of the contending books left out of the Canon were mainly sources which agree with and attest to the Orthodox church and it's canonical books. The Shaped of Hermas, written by the brother of the Bishop of Rome, Hermas who had a remarkable vision of the church as a white tower being constructed by angels placing one white brick upon another (symbolizing the believers and Martyrs). While this work is explicitly in agreement with the orthodox church, it was written too recently and did not have Apostolic authority. Also included as major contenders were 1 and 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles. Also less so, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Peter, and other more minor works that nevertheless, were basically orthodox works. (see Bruce, and also Streeter Primitive Church.) These sources were excluded because they did not have Apostolic backing. The could not be tied to the Apostles by a known witness or by the testimony of acceptance in the community (that they had always been read in church). For those who think that the Orthodox church was willing to make things up, it should be noted that the author of the Acts of Paul and Tehckla was degraded from office for his forgery, even thou his Acts was not unsound doctrinally (Streeter, the Primitive Church). The Early Church was very serious about Apostolic connections and keeping them pure.

B. No Gnostic Gospels

None of the major Gnostic works found at Nag Hammadi were contenders for the canon, none of them are known to have been used in the Orthodox churches, no authority or attestation pertains to them. These works include, The Gospel of Mary, Perfect Thunder Perfect Mind, and other Nag Hammadi works. The Gospel of Peter had some acceptance in Orthodox circles and is obliquely Gnostic, but it did not have anything like the support of the four canonical Gospels.

The Religious A priori