This is part three of a four part series about the development of the New Testament canon. Here's part one and part two.
The term canon comes from the Greek word kanōn, which comes from the Hebrew word kaneh. Canon means “rule” or “standard.” It was not until the middle of the fourth century that the term canon was used to refer to the New Testament. However, this does not mean that the church did not have an early understanding of a canon.
The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown write, “…another expression or set of terms may have been used to communicate the concept that was later called ‘canon’” It is important to acknowledge the Jewish roots of Christianity. As Everett Ferguson puts it, Christianity started with a canon of Scripture, which was the Old Testament. The Old Testament was referred to as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. In fact Jesus himself referred to the Old Testament in this three part manner in Luke 24:44. It would be understandable that the church would use similar terms when referring to the New Testament, as the Jews did with the Old Testament. There is evidence that the early Christians used similar terminology. They used the Memoirs of the Apostles, the Writings of the Evangelists, the Writings of the Apostles, and the Fourfold Gospel when referring to the collection of the New Testament. Everett Ferguson also concludes that the early church fathers used the three-fold manner in reference to the canon. He writes, “Several second-century authors…refer to a three-fold standard of authority for Christians: the prophets, the Lord, and the apostles.”
There is another theory, put forward by M.G. Cline; that is very plausible for an early understanding of a canon. This theory would explain why the early Christians readily accepted the writings of the apostles as Scripture and why these writings were disseminated so quickly. This has roots in the Old Testament understanding of covenant documents. There was a new covenant instituted, so like the old covenant, there would have been an expectation that new covenant documents would be written.
The fact that Christians do not use the term canon until the fourth century has little bearing on whether or not the New Testament was canonized before then. It appears to be a case that is similar to the idea of the Trinity. Though it is well established that the Trinity is found in the New Testament, the term itself was created by the early church fathers. The same could be true of the term of the canon.
There is internal evidence in the New Testament itself; that suggest that the writers understood that they were writing Scripture and a canon. Paul refers to a passage in Luke’s Gospel as Scripture, in 1 Tim 5:18. In 2 Pet 3:15-16, Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture. What is interesting about this passage is that Peter seems to be aware of a circulating collection of Paul’s letters. Not only was he aware of more than one letter but he writes as if the readers are familiar with the letters as well. Luke also references the other gospels in the beginning of his (Luke 1:1). Luke also uses the term, “handed down to us” in Luke 1:2, as do the early church fathers. The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown point out that Matthew and Luke continued the “biblical history of the Old Testament.” In fact, the literary plan of Matthew seems to be structured symbolically like the Pentateuch. They also point out that John would have known that Revelation was Scripture because he was receiving visions from God. His warnings not to add to the book are in line with an understanding that he was writing Scripture. Paul encourages his readers to read his letters in church, which was a principle for Scripture. He commands Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”
The apostles were eyewitness of Jesus. Biblical evidence supports the idea that the New Testament writers were well aware of each other’s work. So that would also make them eyewitnesses of a developing canon. They would have had knowledge of which books were authentic. This idea could explain where the term, “handed down to us” and the term, “we received” developed. The early church fathers claim that the apostles themselves gave them these books. They are very confident of this fact; which perhaps is based on knowledge that is no longer extant for modern scholars.
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.