This is part two of a Four Part Series About the Development of the New Testament Canon. Read part one here.
Bart Ehrman discusses how Athanasius’ letter, written in the year AD 367, was the first time the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were affirmed. The implication is that before Athanasius there was not any consensus regarding any of the books. However, the criterion for canonicity that the early church councils used presupposes an early understanding of the canon. Everett Ferguson writes, “The organized church did not create the canon, but recognized it…Writers from the second century on repeatedly referred to the canonical writings as the books ‘handed down to us’” The fact that the church fathers repeatedly discussed the New Testament books as being “handed down” suggests that they understood which books were historically accepted.
The criterion of apostolicity presupposes that the church fathers had an understanding of which books were written by the apostles and their associates. The criterion of antiquity also presupposes that the church fathers understood when the books were written. The fact that the author of the Muratorian Canon writes regarding the Shepherd of Hermas, “…but Hermas wrote the Shepherd very recently, in our times…” is significant and suggests that the history of the apocryphal books were known. This presupposes the idea that the discussion of which books were a part of the canon was at least taking place by the end of the second century. The criterion of ecclesiastical usage also supports the idea of an early understanding of the canon. It is notable that only a few of the twenty-seven books were ever debated about. Jones writes, “At least as early as the second century A.D., there were twenty or so books that were never questioned”
The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown discuss Diocletian’s edict in 303, which ordered the burning of Christianity’s sacred books. The edict is significant because by the year 303 the corpus of Scriptures was known well enough to catch the attention of the Non-Christian authorities. This also may account for the limited amount of evidence for an early understanding of a canon. Norman Geisler makes an interesting point that until 313 the persecution of the church made it difficult for “research, reflection, and recognition [of the canon].” As soon as the persecutions ended the canon was quickly recognized at the councils of Hippo and Carthage.
Norman Geisler writes, “Communication and transportation were slow, so it took longer for the believers in the West to become fully aware of the evidence for books that had circulated first in the East, and vice versa.” This is apparently the main reason for the debate about the inclusion of some of the New Testament books such as 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John. Despite this, it is astonishing that these books were disseminated over thousands of miles within a short enough time frame that as early as mid-second century twenty of the books were not questioned as to their authenticity. The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown point out that the discovery of the fragment of John in Egypt, only a few decades older than the autograph, is evidence of how fast these writings were being disseminated.
There is also further evidence from the writings of the early church fathers, that they viewed the New Testament writings as Scripture and as a canon. 2 Clement is the earliest extra biblical document from the early church fathers to quote the New Testament using the term Scripture. Polycarp, (c. A.D. 69-155) used the term “sacred Scriptures” for the New Testament, which is also very clear reference to a collection of books.
The author of the Muratorian Canon, mentioned above, referred to the New Testament writings as sacred. This canon list dates to the late second century and lists at least twenty-two of the twenty-seven New Testament books; parts of the fragment are missing so it could have included more.
The writings of Tertullian also give remarkable evidence for an early understanding of a collection of Scripture. Remarking on Marcion’s treatment of Scripture, he appears to point to a defined corpus of Scripture. He mentions that Marcion edited the Scriptures. He also defends the Scriptures against Valentinus and his writings against Valentinus also clearly point to a defined corpus of Scripture. Tertullian remarks, “Valentinus, on the other hand, seems to use the entire instrumentum” F.F. Bruce points out that Tertullian was referring to the New Testament as a collection of books by using the word instrumentum.
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.