What do people mean by the development of the New Testament Canon? For those that do not know, the canon is the collection of the twenty-seven books that make up our New Testament. The New Testament books were not written at the same time so the collection we have today did not come about all at once.
Exactly when all the books came together is debated because evidence for the early canonization process is limited. There is much debate about whether or not the canon was actually set before or after the councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, the councils of Hippo and Carthage. According to some critics, Bart Ehrman in particular, the debate spanned centuries. He claims, “In a strange way, the canon, far from being definitively decided on at some point in time, emerged without anyone taking a vote.” Despite what Bart Ehrman and other critics claim, the point should be made that there is evidence that would suggest that the canon was set before the councils of the fourth and fifth centuries and without much debate.
Critics will argue that there were many competing views about what Christianity was and what belonged in the canon. They will argue that the twenty-seven books that make up the canon today simply came from the competing view that won out over the others. Many also suggest that the formation of the canon was only necessitated by competing views, namely heretical views such as Marcion’s and Gnosticism. Marcion’s canon is the earliest canon list of New Testament books known, written around A.D. 140. He believed in two gods, the vengeful god of the Old Testament and the loving god of the New. He did not believe in the humanity of Jesus. His heretical list of the canon contained a very edited version of Luke and only ten of Paul’s epistles. He rejected all other books. Despite the reaction to his list by the church fathers in his era, it is doubtful that he is as influential as some believe.
The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown write, “Today most are less certain that Marcion is to be given as much credit…” F.F. Bruce writes, “…it can be argued with some show of reason that Marcion’s ‘canon’ was his revision of an existing collection of New Testament writings...”
The supposed competing literature for canonicity falls into three categories; the writings of the church fathers, the Gnostic literature, and the New Testament Apocrypha. The writings of the church fathers can hardly be competing literature, because the church fathers never claimed their writings were Scripture nor did they claim that their writings belonged in the canon.
Many critics claim that the Gnostic gospels are as authoritative as the New Testament gospels. However, the early church fathers branded Gnosticism as heretical from the very beginning of its creation. Craig Blomberg provides a very interesting analysis against Gnostic literature competing for canonicity, writing, “…we have no record of the Gnostics themselves ever proposing any of their distinctive documents for inclusion in any canon…instead they tried to reinterpret the New Testament writings…” Their work of reinterpreting the New Testament presupposes the idea that they viewed the New Testament Scriptures as authoritative.
There are also a few early Christian writers who discuss how the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter were not a part of the canon. The last category of competing literature, the Apocrypha, were for the most part, considered heretical and only had local support and not the universal support required by the criterion of canonicity. Blomberg points out that most of the Apocrypha and the Gnostic gospels claimed to have been written by apostles or used the apostles as the main characters in the books in order to gain credibility. He argues that the authors did not believe that the church would accept these writings without this added deception.
Come back next week to read Part 2 in this series.
Erin Herbst gave her life to Jesus Christ around the age of eight and has been joyfully serving the Lord since that time. Erin is happily married and has two young children with another on the way. She has been ministering to college students since 2004, with Master Plan Ministries. As well as being a wife, mother, and minister to college students she is also working toward a Master’s degree at Liberty University.