The Formation of the New Testament Canon.
The 27 books we know have in the New Testament are technically referred to as the Canon. They were written over a period that extended from a few years after the ascension of Christ to the end of the first century when John’s gospel was written. They were not the only books written by Christians at the time, but these are the ones that the church found to be the most useful, spiritual and the most accurate. Those of obvious apostolic origin were prized by the church right from the time they were first written. These included Luke’s gospel as he is so closely associated with Paul and Mark’s gospel because he was believed to writing what Peter told him. The documents would be copied and circulated so that each individual church had its own copy. The Apostles were considered to be inspired by God, just as the Old Testament prophets were.
The Catholic Encyclopedia mentions Irenæus, in his work of C.E 182-188, “Against Heresies” which testifies to the existence of a ‘Tetramorph’, or a gospel in 4 forms. In the late second century in The Muratorian Canon or Fragment, which came out of the church in Rome, does not mention Hebrews, James, II Peter; I Peter, but does include the Wisdom of Solomon, according to the History of Christianity ( page 94).It was as late as 367 to 405 before the canon was really finally fixed as we now have it. In 367 St Athanasis in his ‘Epistola Festalis’ lists the books that Origen considered were the New Testament. The Alexandrian church to which Origen belonged was considered to be broad minded and included books that were later excluded –Barnabus, the Shepherd of Hermes and the Didache. Other books we now consider as essential to the canon were still in dispute at this time, that is some churches used them and others did not. – Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, Jude, 2nd Peter.
In a list of the books used by Eusebius in 300 C.E as given in ‘The History of Christianity’( page 25) he was still unsure about the authorship of Revelation, and had some doubts about James, 2nd Peter, still 2nd and 3rd John and Jude. It was the year 400, at the Council of Carthage when the Catholic Church finally fixed the canon. There had been a council in 393, but its acts are now lost according to Glenn Davis on the web page ‘The development of the New Testament Canon.’
The third synod, in the year 400, produced the following statement:-
Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of divine Scriptures. Moreover, the canonical Scriptures are these: [then follows a list of Old Testament books]. The [books of the] New Testament: the Gospels, four books; the Acts of the Apostles, one book; the Epistles of Paul, thirteen; of the same to the Hebrews; one Epistle; of Peter, two; of John, apostle, three; of James, one; of Jude, one; the Revelation of John. Concerning the confirmation of this canon, the transmarine Church shall be consulted. On the anniversaries of martyrs, their acts shall also be read.
In 419 another synod, held in Carthage closed its agenda with these words:-
Fourteen Epistles of Paul ….. the Revelation of John, one book. Let this be sent
to our brother and fellow-bishop, Boniface [of Rome], and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things that we have received from our fathers to be read in church.
Some may be surprised that it took so long before the canon was fixed, but it must be emphasized that when the church decided to include books in the canon it was not doing so in order to give them authority. What was happening was rather that the obvious authority the works contained was recognized as inspired by God, something that the whole church already knew and possessed.
Dowley, T.(1980) ( organizing editor), The History of Christianity, Tring, Lion Publishing
Davis,G. ,The development of the New Testament Canon,1997-2008, retrieved 9th December 2008 from http://www.ntcanon.org/Carthage.canon.shtml
Knight, K. The formation of the Tetromorpth, or fourfold Gospel, Catholic Encyclopedia, 2008, retrieved 9th December 2008 from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03274a.htm