Canonical Books


by Leland M. Haines

When we look back to the early church's written records, it appears to have taken a fairly long time to "canonize" the New Testament. Currently we know of no list of canonical books dating before A.D. 170, and this list does not contain all twenty-seven books found today in the New Testament. The first list we know of containing the twenty-seven books was made in 367, when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed them in his annual Easter letter to the church. It was just before this, soon after 350, that Athanasius applied the Greek term kanon to the list of books that was Scripture. It was not until the fifth century that disputes about which books belonged in the canon generally ceased. Before we conclude from these facts that the canon was slow in being recognized, we must realize that our vision into early church history related to the canon is likely very imperfect. Undoubtedly, there were many other lists earlier than that of 170, because the canon would have been fairly well-defined soon after the apostolic age, and for certain by the end of the second century.

So far as we know, twenty of the twenty?seven books were accepted as they were written. Schaff wrote, "The principle books, the Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of Peter, and the first Epistle of John, in a body, were in general use after the middle of the second century, and were read, either entire or by sections, in public worship, after the manner of the Jewish synagogue, for the edification of the people." Some early church leaders questioned the inspiration of the other seven books for a time. For example, the author of Hebrews was unknown, they did not understand how James's remarks on faith and works fit into Paul's explanation of justification by faith. The writing style of Peter's second letter differs considerably from his first letter; John's second and third letters were private and slow to receive wide circulation; Jude referred to the apocryphal Book of Enoch; and some questioned the literalness of Revelation's thousand-year-reign teaching.

The only way we know today which books the early church considered canonical is through the early leaders' writings, by which books they quoted from or alluded to. But even this becomes difficult. "The first half of the second century is comparatively veiled in obscurity. . . . After the death of John only a few witnesses remained to testify of the wonders of the Apostolic days, and their writings are few in number, short in compass and partly of doubtful origin. . . . The men of that generation were more skilled in acting out Christianity in life and death, than in its literary defense."

The earliest record that the apostolic writings were accepted as Scripture is found in The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100). He wrote, "As it is written, 'Many are called, but few are chosen.'" The footnote states that this is "an exact quotation from Matt. xx.16 or xxii.14. It is worthy of notice that this is the first example in the writings of the Fathers of a citation from any book of the New Testament, preceded by the authoritative formula, 'It is written.'" A footnote to Cement's Second Letter concerning the statement, "And another Scripture says, 'I did not come to call the righteousness, but sinner'" states this statement is a quotation of Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32; and that "this is the earliest example of a New Testament passage being cited as 'Scripture.'"

Below is a brief review of which books early church fathers quoted from and, if available, their views of these books. Obviously, these writers may have also accepted other books, but may not have quoted from them.

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Justin Martyr (c. 110-65) used all the Gospels, Paul's epistles, I Peter and Revelation. His high view of these writings is shown in his words: "the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called the Gospels, have delivered unto us," and then gives details of Jesus' ministry; "the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them" show the source of these writings: "We have not believed empty fables, or words without foundation, but words filled with the Spirit of God, and big with power, and flourishing with grace," "a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law--namely, Christ--has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy." Concerning the Book of Revelation, he writes, "A certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by revelation that was made to him," etc. These writings were read in the early church alongside Old Testament Scriptures: "On the day called Sunday . . . the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read. . . . the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things."

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Polycarp (c. 69-155) quoted from Matthew, Luke, John, and ten of Paul's epistles, Hebrews, I Peter, and 1 and 2 John. In his short Philippians letter, he had numerous New Testament quotations and allusions. This shows that most of the New Testament books were available to him, that he was very familiar with them, and that he treated them authoritatively. Polycarp is a reputable witness to the canon. He was a student of John, and as Irenaeus wrote, Polycarp "would speak of the conversations he held with John and with the others who had seen the Lord." Polycarp recognized that the apostles were specially gifted teachers: "For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth." He quoted Matt. 26:41 and/or Mark 14:38: "As the Lord has said: 'The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak.'" He wrote about those who "pervert the oracles of the Lord . . . let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning."

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Ignatius (c. 30-107) wrote seven epistles to the church while enroute to martyrdom in Rome. His writings differ from Polycarp's since Ignatius wrote while traveling and could not refer to the written Word. He had to recall truth from memory; so his writings contain very few direct quotations, but they contain many allusions to the New Testaments books. He quotes or makes allusions to Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, I Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians, and I Peter. He wrote that he did "not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles," and that "the lot of the Christians of Ephesians, who have always been in the same mind with apostles in the power of Jesus Christ."

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Tatian's (c. 110-72) Diatessaron, or Harmony of the Four Gospels, which was once widely circulated, shows that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the Gospels in the early church. He referred to John 1:5 as "scripture." Tatian made frequent allusions to Paul's epistles and Hebrews. He was a pupil of Justin Martyr but "seems to have afterwards wandered to the borders of heretical Gnosticism, or at least to an extreme type of asceticism." His Harmony "conclusively proves the existence and ecclesiastical use of the four Gospels, no more and no less, in the middle of the second century."

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Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130?202), the disciple of Polycarp, wrote extensively and used almost all the New Testament books; he named or cited all the books except Philemon, James, II Peter, and III John. His high views are shown in his writings: "We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. . . . [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge." "Thus did the apostles simply, and without respect of persons, deliver to all what they themselves learned from the Lord."

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Tertullian (c. 150-220) was an elder who lived and served in Carthage, North Africa. He was a major early church writer, even though he did not repent until he was in his thirties or forties. In his writing he makes over 7,200 New Testament Scripture quotations. He used all the books except Philemon, James, II Peter, and III John.

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The Moratoria Fragment on the canon (c. 170) is an incomplete Latin writing discovered in an eighth-century manuscript by an Italian librarian and historian, L. A. Moratoria, in 1740. Its unknown Roman author named all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and I and II Peter. It is believed this is "an authoritative list of the writings which are to be 'received' in the Catholic [general] church and to be read in public." Some have argued that the names of these missing books were lost from the list because of a break in the manuscript. This document also names several books that are to be rejected. Kummel comments: "Quite clear is the consciousness that just as the prophetic writings is closed, so also the apostolic writings must be exactly delimited and the new canon must be a closed one. Decisive for including a writing is not its content but the fact that it was written by an apostle."

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Clement of Alexandrea (c. 155?212), in his Outlines manuscript, went into details of the New Testament canon's books, but this manuscript has been lost. He accepted or cited all the books except II Timothy, Philemon, James, II Peter, and II and III John. Since he wrote about historical details of the books, it is clear that their backgrounds were known and that the church was interested in and knew of the books' histories.

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Origen (c. 185-254), according to Eusebius, "attests that he knows of only four gospels"žMatthew, Mark, Luke, and Johnž"which are the only undisputed ones in the whole church of God throughout the world."

In the above lists, the Gospels occur first. This was almost the universal order of New Testament book lists. This was also the logical order since Jesus Christ is the center and focus of the redemptive events and of the church.
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From chapter 2 of Authority of Scripture, © copyright 2000 by Leland M. Haines, Northville, MI.

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