The question of Canon: the who, what, and where of the books of the Bible

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 11.54.34 PM.png

The modern biblical New Testament canon (BNTC) as we possess it today did not come to us in the way that we know it; the original autographs of the BNTC were not leather-bound books with thumb indexing and gold edges on the pages. There was a very lengthy process in which these books were passed down to us. When this subject is being addressed, what is being discussed is the twenty-seven books we find in what is now called the BNTC. These twenty-seven books represent the message of Jesus of Nazareth recorded by his followers in the first few decades after his death. The issue of canon is the question of how these books were assembled and put together. More so, however, the issue encompasses the differentiation of these books from other contemporaneous stories of Jesus in the successive centuries after his death; therefore, in order to understand this issue in its entirety, it needs to be defined, outlined, and addressed under the setting of its theological significance and its first-century context. It must be traced back and proven reliable. This can be done through a number of categories. The first, can be summarized as the origin of the cannon, that is, addressing why the early church intrinsically created a cannon of scripture. The second is that of the date of canon, namely, tracing its historicity and reliability, and the third, through recognizing and examining the contenders for the cannon, their context, content, and direct address.



The issue of canon must be examined through its origin. Why did the early church decide to put together the documents that we now recognize as the BNTC? Why a New Testament canon at all? As mentioned previously, this is a theological discussion, one that has far too often been framed not theologically, but historically alone. History has a part to play in this, but ultimately the issue of cannon is framed in theological language. Some theologians and scholars have proposed that the BNTC is what we can refer to as an ecclesiastical product, or what can be described as an extrinsic model, imposed onto the church by the outside. However, this retroactive imposition doesn’t always make sense in light of the early church in regard to both their eschatological theology and their covenantal mind frame.1


This can be concretely seen in the eschatological nature of early Christianity. The first Christians were Jews, who were living in a tense situation of displacement. Not a physical displacement, but rather a spiritual one. The anticipation for the deliverance of Israel discussed in the Old Testament (OT) was still very much in the sub-conscious of first century Jews.2 We see this language of deliverance and redemption in the biblical testimony in places like John 1:41 (looking for the Messiah), Luke 2:38 (redemption of Jerusalem), Luke 2:25 (consolation of Israel), and Acts 1:6 (restoration of the kingdom). In other words, the Jews within early Christianity did not view the story of the OT as complete. As N.T. Wright states, “the great story of the Hebrew scriptures was therefore inevitably read in the second-temple period as a story in search of a conclusion.”3This is evident in the very structure of the OT canon, with first-century Hebrew TANAKHs (Hebrew Bibles) most often ending with the book of Chronicles. The idea being that of the openness of the OT canon ending with the Davidic reign, distinctly inviting the coming Davidic King and ending in a posture of anticipation for first-century Jews.4


This then, sets the stage for the first Christians and their eschatological mind frame. Early Christians believed that these OT prophecies were indeed fulfilled and accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of their Messiah, Jesus (Deut. 18:18 in juxtaposition with the arguments in Hebrews). This was not eschatological in terms of a second coming, but rather, eschatological in terms of the culmination of the story of the OT. It is what Wright describes as “the climax of the exile [being] reached.”5 Consequently, the fact that the Jews of the first century viewed the OT as incomplete and in need of a conclusion brings with it the need for a new corpus of books, i.e. the BNTC. It is also worth noting that the OT biblical witness describes a pattern, one of God revealing a new set of word revelation after His major redemptive events. As Richard Gaffin writes, “revelation never stands by itself, but is always concerned either explicitly or implicitly with redemptive accomplishment. God’s speech is invariably related to his actions; it is not going too far to say that redemption is the raison d’etre of revelation.”6 The pattern therefore being that, redemption leads to word revelation; it would not be hard to see why the early Christians would intrinsically posit this revelation in the BNTC. This process would not have been seen as forced in the early Christian mindset, rather, through this pattern of word revelation following redemption, it would have seemed innate, intrinsic, and organic.


Equally, first century Judaism as well as early Christianity was covenantal. When looking at the writings leading up to the first century, an interpretation of what can be described as covenantal categories is seen very strongly. The Jewish people understood the actions of God through the lens of His covenantal promises. What is interesting is that when we get to the earliest Christian writings this theological covenantal mind frame crosses over.7The acts of Jesus circulating in the Kerygma (oral Jesus stories) and recorded in the gospels were framed in the context of Jesus bringing with Him a new covenant. The last supper was understood as a covenantal meal, as Jesus describes (Luke 22:20; Matt. 26:28; Mark 12:4); Zachariah understood the coming of his son, John the Baptist, as the fulfilling of God’s covenant and the coming Messiah (Luke 1:5-25); Paul describes the ministry of the Apostles as being “ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6), alluding to the “making [of a] new covenant with the people” in Jer. 31:31; and so on. There are many examples of this in the text. What does covenantal theology have to do with the origin of the BNTC? The answer lies in the connection between covenants and written texts. The OT idea of a covenant was linked with the written text representing the terms and arrangements of that covenant promise (Ex. 24:7, 34:28; 2 Kings 23:2; Deut. 4:13, 29:21).8 Therefore, if the early Christians themselves were immersed in this covenantal structure and mind frame then it is not hard to imagine the New Covenant, through Jesus Christ, also being received with written text. These Christians, by virtue of their Christian heritage, would have naturally seen this promise manifested in conjunction with written scriptural books. Once again being seen as innate, intrinsic, and organic to their faith.




Secondly, there is the issue of the BNTC, namely, tracing its historicity and reliability. Here the “when” of it all is addressed. When exactly were these books first viewed as scripture? If it is argued that canon is an ecclesiastical product, an extrinsic model imposed onto the church, than the date of canon is essential to the discussion. The majority consensus on the date of canon is the end of the second century as the point when this shift takes place, specifically because of the writings of Irenaeus (130-202 CE), when he writes, “but it is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds, and the cherubim too were four faced”9. Not only this, but Irenaeus quotes other BNTC books extensively. Along with the four-fold gospels, he names the entire Pauline corpus (excluding Philemon), Acts, Peter, James, Hebrew, 1st and 2nd John, 1st and 2nd Peter, and Revelation. Irenaeus quotes BNTC passages over a thousand times, identifying them directly as “graphe” or scripture (there is also some evidence he thought the Shepherd of Hermes was scripture but that will be discussed later). However, because of this fact many scholars have posited the idea that Irenaeus was the innovator of the BNTC, Elaine Pagels describes him the “principal architect”10  of the BNTC itself. The problem with such a theory is that in IrenaeusAgainst Haresies he gives no proof-texting for his citations of BNTC being scripture. Instead he cites the BNTC frequently, as if his audience would have known of them, and confidently as scripture. There is no defense or argument of their scriptural integrity, he simply quotes them rather as fact. If the extrinsic model is true, it would be foreign within the early Christian community to see BNTC books being cited as scripture either before Irenaeus’ or by contemporaries. If true, this would push back the date of canon beyond the second century.11


Irenaeus however, was not the only second century writer to mention the books of the BNTC as scriptural. Theophilus (169-183 CE), a contemporary of Irenaeus, and the bishop of Antioch, states in the mid to late second century that, “concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God."12 This stands as a very bold statement; essentially, Theophilus is arguing that the authority and veracity of the OT prophets is shared in its scriptural nature with the gospels. Not only this but Theophilus makes mentions of Paul’s letters as well. So too does Clement of Alexandria (95-97 CE). In his letters to Corinth he quotes BNTC with ease and regularity, establishing all four gospels, the epistles of Paul, Acts, Hebrews, 1st Peter, 1st and 2nd John, Jude, and Revelation.13 Likewise, the early document of the Muratorian fragment (there is some argument as to the dating of this document but the earliest it's attested is 170 CE) suggests that Irenaeus was not alone in his views. Not only this but the evidence of the Muatorian fragment works to place these books in a list, suggesting restriction rather than mere usage of BNTC. The Muratorian fragment is strong evidence but even more is the testimony of Tatian’s work of the Diatessaron (160-175 CE), which promotes a complete gospel harmony of all four BNTC gospels. In this we start to see somewhat of a pattern evolving in the second century Christian community. For not only Irenaeus but also Theophoilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Tatian, and the witness of the Muratorian fragment, all baring testimony to a very early date and idea of canonicity. Dispelling ideas of Irenaeus being alone and working to show that the BNTC was accepted at a very early date showing both geographically diversity and recognition as canon throughout the second century; ideas that, due to their regularity and ease of quotation by these second century Christians, may well have predated the second century.




Finally, the issue of canon can be recognized and examined by the category of looking at the contenders for the cannon, their context, content, and direct address. For it is true that there are other books written in the first few successive centuries after Jesus’ death; books that discuss the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in a different light than our BNTC presents them. Apocryphal (that is, non-canonical) works started to appear and be circulated relative early in regard to the story of the early Christian church, donning the titles of Apostles and other members of Jesus’ followers (Mary Magdalene, Nicodmus, Judas, etc.). 14 The question therefore must be asked, how do these apocryphal gospels, letters, and books fit into the conversation in regard to the BNTC as we know it today? Did they ever have a chance at being included the BNTC? This conversation is key in understanding the BNTC because many of the early church fathers already mentioned (Irenaeus, Clement, and Tatian) make use of and quote apocryphal sources. So the question in regard to the BNTC and its contenders is that of use. Is mere use of apocryphal books proof of their authoritative status?


Some scholars and theologians have indeed argued for the mere use of a book demonstrating its authoritative standing. The issue in regard to canon and contenders is not whether their use is true or not, for this is evident, the question is the conclusion that is drawn from that fact. The content of how these books were discussed and used is very important.15 Eusebius (260-339 CE) refers to the apocryphal Gospel of Peter when the Christian community of Rhossus writes to Serapion of Antioch (191-211 CE) in regard to the supposed work of Peter. Serapion, after reading the Gospel of Peter discovered it contained a docetic teaching (that is, denying the incarnate physical nature of Christ). Serapion condemned the apocryphal gospel of Peter on all counts because of its content. 16 In regard to Serapion and the community of Rhossus, can we draw the conclusion (as previously stated) that the four-fold gospel collection that we find in the BNTC was actually normative? The answer remains that there seems to be no indication on the part of the Serapion event, that the Gospel of Peter was either considered as scripture by the church at Rhossus or Serapion himself. 17 No indication from the documents themselves that it even functioned as scripture in any one of those contexts. 


Likewise, Clement of Alexandria, and his pupil Origen, both quoted extensively from apocryphal books such as the Teaching of Peter, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Shepherd of Hermes, and the Epistle of Barnabas. Yet Clement, as recorded by Eusebius, declares “about the four gospels, which alone are undisputed in the church of God under heaven" 18, directly highlighting Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Consequently, the content and context as to which both Clement and Origin use these sources is very important. They are clear in their use of scripture, often outlining BNTC as such in comparison with apocryphal works. Therefore, Clement works as a very concrete example of an early church source having no issue with using apocryphal works as sources, but through his context, content, and direct address, specifies which are and aren’t scriptural. In this way, mere use does not equate to reception or acceptance on the part of scripture.


 Frequency likewise must be noted in the discussion. Irenaeus makes over 1000 references to the BNTC books (400 of which are gospel quotations). Comparably, Tertullian accredits the four-fold gospels, making 2500 references to the BNTC books (700 being gospel citations). Clement quoted the BNTC books far less than Irenaeus or Tertullian but still made 230 references. In comparison, Clement quotes apocryphal sources a total of 16 times in all his writings; Irenaeus and Tertullian’s numbers of apocryphal citations being similarly low in comparison to their BNTC references.19


It is also paramount to address some of these specific contenders directly in order to refute their relation to the BNTC. The two closest contemporaneous contenders for the BNTC were not the sensational Gnostic or Decetic Gospels. Rather, the two who had the best possibility at being incorporated into the BNTC were the Shepherd ofHermes, and the Epistle of Barnabas. The number one contender is the Shepherd, so therefore it will be addressed directly. Neither of these books were gospels at all, rather, the Shepherd of Hermes was an apocalypse, comparative to the book of Revelation (last book in the BNTC).  The issue with the Shepherd as a book was its late authorship; being a mid to late second century writing, with no direct apostolic connection. It is interesting to note that the Muatorian fragment (mentioned previously) rejects the Shepherd (along with the Epistle of Barnabas) outright stating that “it was written very recently, in our times by Hermes while his brother Pius was sitting in the chair of Rome."20 This gives a very strong indication that recent productions (after the first century) were never truly seen as contenders to BNTC. Apostolic succession for documents of the BNTC was considered the core criteria for the early Christian church and its leaders. All in consideration, while Irenaeus seems to have no interest in Barnabas, he does at one point call the Shepherd of Hermes graphe, “scripture” in his work Against Heresy, but afterwards never mentions it again.  Origin too regarded the Shepherd as valuable but leaves it out in his explicit list of BNTC books. Tertullian, much like Irenaeus had very little to say about Barnabas but rejected the Shepherd outright stating, “But I would yield my ground to you, if the writing of the Shepherd… had deserved to find a place in the Divine canon; if it had not been habitually judged by every council of Churches (even your own) among apocryphal and false (writings) 21”. The Shepherd of Hermes remains the closest contender for inclusion in the BNTC, but as seen, the leaders of the church did not seriously consider it part of canon in the second century.


The dating of these apocryphal documents is crucial. While the BNTC documents all predate the second century in autograph and origin, the apocryphal documents all date from the second century or later. The only apocryphal book that could possibly be dated close to the first century is that of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. While being an early work of antiquity, the Gospel of Thomas had very little possiblity of actually making its way into the BNTC. Thomas is practically absent from any mention in early Christianity, apart from a few mentions of condemnation by patristic writers. Thomas is not a traditional narrative gospel like that of the BNTC gospels; rather, it is a list of 114 sayings of Jesus. Narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are absent from Thomas. Even more to the point, is the content of these sayings, most of which draw heavily on the BNTC gospels for its content with a very strong leaning towards Gnostic heresy. Gnosticism as a defined religion was not solidified till the mid second century. These teachings not only recognized as heretical in terms of doctrine but also revealing late authorship, ultimately excluding writings like that of Thomas from anything connected to the apostolic writers and therefore the BNTC. 22




The issue of canon and the documents that make up the BNTC have great implication in the picture of the Christian message and theology as a whole. Theology lives and dies in the message of scripture, all coming back to the notion of God’s revelation. It hinges on the question of how God has revealed Himself to us, and in what way has He done this. This ultimately funnels down to the inquiry of whether we know that what we possess today in the BNTC is what God gave to the original authors, and whether we can trust that message. Therefore, the faith seeking understanding Christian need to ask themselves honestly what the BNTC is, and how we know it is reliable. This can be done through looking at the origin of the cannon, flushing out the eschatological nature of the early Christians and the intrinsic, organic, and natural process of the pattern of word revelation following redemption linked with covenantal promise and written texts, by analyzing the date of canon, tracing its historicity and reliability through looking at the perception of the early church fathers, and their view of the BNTC documents as scripture and therefore divine revelation, and finally, through recognizing and examining the contenders for the cannon, their context, content, and direct address. By examining how they were viewed and related in regard to BNTC, and by examining the credibility of contending works of antiquity, we can conclude the authenticity, reliability, and credibility of the documents we know call the BNTC.



[1] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford University Press (2012), pg. 8-10; Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: Battles for Scripture and the Faiths we Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press. (2003), pg. 236-237

[2] Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy. Illinois: Crossway Publishing. (2010), pg. 125-127.

[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (1992), pg. 217.

[4] Michael Coogan, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction. (2008), pg. 119,127; Richard B. Gaffin, Ressurection and Redemption. Phillipsburg: P&R. (1978), pg. 22; Michael J. Kruger. Canon Revisited. Illinois: Crossway Publishing. (2012), pg. 166-170

[5] N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. London: Biddles Publishing Ltd. (2004), pg. 150.

[6] Richard B. Gaffin, Ressurection and Redemption. Phillipsburg: P&R. (1978), pg. 22.

[7] N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. London: Biddles Publishing Ltd. (2004), pg. 150.

[8] Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon. Illinois: Inter Varsity Press. (2012), pg. 57-59

[9] Irenaeus, Against Heresies. 3.11.8

[10] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House Publishing. (2003), pg. 111.

[11] Michael J. Kruger. Canon Revisited. Illinois: Crossway Publishing. (2012), pg. 214, 228.

[12] Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 3.12.

[13] Michael J. Kruger. Canon Revisited. Illinois: Crossway Publishing. (2012), pg. 211, 212.

[14] Denis Farkasfalvy, Inspiration and Interpretation: A Theological Introduction to Sacred Scripture. New York: Catholic University of America Press. (2010), pg. 94.

[15] Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: Battles for Scripture and the Faiths we Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press. (2003), pg.146-167

[16] Patrick Healy, St. Serapion, The Catholic Encylopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company. (1912), pg. 248-252

[17] Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: Battles for Scripture and the Faiths we Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press. (2003), pg.14-16

[18] Eusebius, H.E. 6.25.4-6

[19] Thomas Cooper, The Bridge of History Over the Gulf of Time: A Popular View of the Historical Evidence for the Truth of Christianity. London: Hodder and Stoughton. (1871), pg. 74-75.

[20] M.A. Smith, From Christ to Constantine. London: IVP, (1971), pg. 65-66.

[21] Tertullian, De Pudicitia. 10.12

[22] H,H Drake Williams, Jesus Tried and True. Wipf and Stock Publishers. (2013), pg. 26-27.