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New Testament Canonicity


Jack R. Ryan

© copyright 1997

Most people today are unaware of the process involved in recognizing which books belong in the New Testament. It is generally taken for granted that the 27 books of the New Testament are a part of the Word of God. In fact, the term "canon" and/or "canonicity" may seem foreign in the ears of Bible readers today. F. F. Bruce, the great Bible scholar of this century, gives a precise definition of the term "canon." He states that the "root meaning of the word is 'reed,'" which leads to several "derivative senses."{1} Bruce continues,

. . . since a reed might be used as a measuring rod kanon is found with this meaning, and also with the meaning of a rule or standard in a metaphorical sense. It is this last sense that a Greek Father like Origen used the word kanon to denote what we call the 'rule of faith,' the standard by which we are to measure and evaluate everything that may be offered to us as an article of belief. In this sense the word is closely linked with the authority of Scripture, because Scripture is the rule both of faith and of practice . . . .{2}

Furthermore, "In a Christian context, we might define the word as 'the list of the writings acknowledged by the Church as documents of the divine revelation.'"{3}

At this point it is imperative to understand that the canon is not the product of the Christian church. The church had no authority to control, create, or define the Word of God. It is the inspiration of a book that rendered it authoritative, not human acceptance or recognition of a book. The book in question does not become canonical through human agreement with it. Authority is inherent in those writings from the outset, and the church simply confesses this to be the case. Thus, the church merely discovered which books were canonical, it did not dictate which ones were.{4}

Categories of New Testament Books and Other Early Writings

There were four basic categories into which the books of the New Testament could be placed. An introductory knowledge of these categories is important to understanding the process of how the New Testament canon was finally recognized by the church.


The homologoumena (literally "to speak the same") were books accepted by virtually everyone. It refers to "those books which have been universally acclaimed as canonical from their beginning. They have appeared in virtually every ancient version and orthodox canonical list, as well as having been widely quoted as Scripture."{5}

Theses books include the following: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, First Thessalonians, Second Thessalonians, First Timothy, Second Timothy, Titus, Philemon, First Peter, and First John. Thus twenty of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were without dispute.


The antilegomena (literally "to speak against") were those disputed books "concerning which certain questions arose, and which were not admitted into the Canon until later."{6} Eusebius, the early church historian, used the term in a broad sense to cover all disputed writings (whether they were Apostolic works or common literature of doubtful authorship). "However, he also made a narrower distinction by using it to classify only those disputed books which were commonly accepted as canonical . . . ."{7} Furthermore,

Eusebius's classifications were built upon two principles: canonicity and orthodoxy. The Homologoumena and the Antilegomena were understood to qualify as authoritative for the church on both counts. Those works found within the Antilegomena were regarded as disputed only because of a lack of testimony in the writings of early church fathers.{8}

The books which fall into this category were Hebrews, James, Second Peter, Second John, Third John, Jude, and Revelation.


The pseudepigrapha (literally "false writings") are those writings "which claim to be produced by Biblical writers or in Biblical times, but which have never been accepted as canonical."{9} There are two types of pseudepigrapha: Old Testament and New Testament. "The New Testament Pseudepigrapha proper are those writings which pretend to be gospels, epistles, apocalypses, etc., written by New Testament characters."{10}

Regarding their acceptance by the early church, it has been noted that "virtually no orthodox Father, canon or council considered these books to be canonical . . . . At best, these books were revered by some of the cults and referred to by some of the orthodox Fathers, but they were never considered canonical by the mainstream of Christianity."{11} In fact, Eusebius called them "totally absurd and impious."{12}

There are a large number{13} of writings included in this group and it is beyond the scope of this paper to list them all. However, a representative list is included below to indicate the general category of this type of writing.{14}

Regarding their value to the church today, it has been pointed out that in general, "these books have no positive theological value, and almost no historical value, except as they reflect the religious consciousness of the church during early centuries."{15}


The Apocrypha (from the term "hidden, secret") are a group of writings which fall into two classes: Old Testament and New Testament. The New Testament Apocrypha are a "Substantial collection of works that were published under the names of apostolic writers during the second and subsequent centuries. For the most part they were deliberate fabrications and never had any serious claim to canonicity."{16} There are several types of Apocrypha of the New Testament. There are Apocryphal Gospels, Apocryphal Acts, Apocryphal Epistles, and Apocryphal Apocalypses.

Geisler and Nix indicate that "these books were not received as canonical and, like the Pseudepigrapha, they were used heretically by the sects and even homiletically by the orthodox."{17} The character of these books varies greatly. Some are devotional and ethical in nature while others are totally absurd and fraudulent. Bruce Metzger comments on the credibility of the Apocryphal Gospels and their exclusion from the canon of the New Testament:

Sometimes the apocryphal gospels are referred to as "excluded books of the Bible." Even a casual acquaintance, however, of the apocryphal gospels and their credentials will prove that no one excluded them from the Bible; they excluded themselves.{18}

Some of the more important New Testament Apocrypha include the following:{19}

The value of the New Testament Apocrypha may be summarized as follows.{20} (1) They provide the earliest documentation of some of the canonical books of the New Testament; (2) they reveal the general teaching of the subapostolic church; (3) they form a bridge between the apostolic writings of the New Testament and the patristic literature of the third and fourth centuries; (4) they possess hints as to the rise of later false teachings and heresies; and (5) they contain much historical value about the practices and policies of the early church.

Formation of the New Testament Canon

Tracing the history of the church as it relates to its role in discovering the New Testament canon is important in understanding why there are twenty-seven books in the New Testament.

The First Century.

During the first century the New Testament canon was being written. At this stage, it was in the form of the original autographs from which copies were made to distribute throughout the coming centuries. Yet even at this early stage, Clement of Rome (A.D. 96) was quoting from Matthew, Luke, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, and 1 John.{21} Regarding the canonicity of the New Testament books, "the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul were accepted by the end of the first century."{22}

The Second Century.

In the second century the church has already began preliminary steps in recognizing the canon. Polycarp (69-155), a disciple of the Apostle John, is found quoting freely from several of the New Testament books (e.g., Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and ten of Paul's letters), "with no fewer than 11 references to 1 John; and he evidently treats them as Scripture."{23} Justin Martyr (100-165), the great Christian apologist, makes extended use of the four Gospels (he quotes no less than 43 times from Matthew alone). Justin makes an important declaration regarding the canonical status of the Gospels when he "states that in his day the 'Memoirs of the Apostles' were called 'Gospels,' and that on the day called Sunday they were read in the churches of the cities and the country, interchangeably with the Prophets, that is, they were accepted as 'Scripture' equally with the Old Testament."{24}

Irenaeus (c. 125-c. 192), bishop of Lyons, was the first patristic writer "to make a full use of the New Testament, making 1800 quotations and references in his extant works, and using them in such a way as to imply that they had for some time been considered as of unquestioned authority."{25} Irenaeus was a great defender of the church. He write many works (only two of which are still extant) to combat the heresies of his day. "In using the scriptures to expose and refute subversive teaching, it was important to know which scriptures might effectively be so used, and he knew them, and used them."{26} Thus he also equated the books of the New Testament as authoritative and equal with the Old Testament Scriptures.

Another figure of the second century who played an important role in recognizing the New Testament canon was Tertullian (150-220). Tertullian was the first to employ the designation "New Testament" in his writings.{27} He made prolific use of the Apostolic writers, quoting "more than 1800 different passages from the New Testament, making 7200 references, 3800 from the Gospels, 200 from John alone."{28} It is also important to note that Tertullian recognized and referred to these New Testament books as inspired Scripture.

An unorthodox individual from the second century must be mentioned in regards to the formation of the New Testament canon—the Gnostic heretic Marcion (c. 100-c. 160). Because of his anti-Semitic prejudges, Marcion rejected the Old Testament and "issued his own NT, which consisted of an abbreviated Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline epistles (excluding the Pastorals) edited on a dogmatic basis."{29} Many credit him as being the first individual to compose an actual list of New Testament canonical books.{30} This point is debated, however. F. F. Bruce notes that "Marcion formed his Bible in declared opposition to the holy scriptures of the church from which he had separated; it was in opposition to his criticism that the church in its turn first became rightly conscious of its heritage of apostolic writings."{31}

The limited canon which Marcion formulated "implies the existence of a larger group of writings accepted by the Church."{32} Thus, the very existence of Marcion's canon demonstrates that the church was well on its way to recognizing the 27 books of the New Testament as canonical.

Finally, the Muratorian Fragment is an essential element in the development of the New Testament canon in the second century. This document is a Latin translation of a Greek codex and is usually dated about 170.{33} It is important because it is probably the earliest non-heretical list of canonical books extant today. It contains every book of the New Testament with exception of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter. Geisler and Nix comment regarding the omission of these four books: "Westcott argues for the probability of a break in this manuscript that may once have included these books."{34} Furthermore,

The document is best regarded as a list of New Testament books recognized as authoritative in the Roman church at that time. In addition to naming the books, it makes a number of observations on them, reflecting the contemporary opinion of some churchmen.{35}

The Third Century.

Three influential individuals play an important role in the history of the New Testament canon in the third century. Origen (185-254), a gifted scholar from Alexandria, "traveled extensively to acquaint himself with the Biblical literature in use in different parts of the Church."{36} This qualified him to speak and write with authority on the matter of the New Testament canon.

In his writings he distinguishes between the homologoumena, the antilegomena,{37} and the apocryphra.{38} This reveals important information regarding the status of the individual books of the New Testament and how they were being received during the third century.

Dionysius the Great (190-265) was a writer and lawyer who was also from Alexandria. He later succeeded Origen as the bishop of Alexandria and acknowledged all of the New Testament books with the exception of 2 Peter and Jude.{39} Cyprian (200-258), the bishop of Carthage, has been called the "greatest bishop of the 3rd century."{40} This is due, no doubt, in part because he was martyred for his faith. As a writer, he quotes extensively from New Testament Scriptures, "but shows no signs of knowing Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude."{41} This does not necessarily mean that Cyprian rejected these books. He may not have had access to them or may have not had an occasion to quote from them.

The Fourth Century.

By the fourth century the many collections of New Testament documents became a single collection. It was in the century that the term canon came to be used.{42} Miller notes that the "century began with the great and terrible persecution, started in 303 by the Roman emperor Diocletian (285-305), the so-called 'tenth' persecution of the Christians."{43} He describe this persecution in the following manner: "Churches were torn down, the Holy Scriptures were burned, pastors were hunted, tortured, and torn to pieces by wild beasts in the amphitheatre, and Christians suffered all sorts of horrible deaths."{44} Because of this persecution it became imperative for the church to recognize which writings were canonical and worthy of suffering martyrdom. Four great leaders were instrumental during the fourth century, Eusebius and Athanasius in the early part of the century and Jerome and Augustine in the latter part.

Eusebius (270-340), the great church historian and bishop of Caesarea, was a careful scholar who divided the writings of the first century into four groups: homologoumena, antilegomena, pseudepigrapha, and apocrypha. "In one place he gives an account of the New Testament writings current throughout the churches in his own time."{45} This account includes all 27 books of the New Testament (though Eusebius writes that a number of these books were spoken against).

Athanasius (296-373), the bishop of Alexandria, seems to bring the issue of the New Testament canon to a climax in his 39th festal letter. He saw the need of "setting forth in order from the first the books that are canonized and handed down and believed to be divine, so that each, if he has been deceived, may detect those which have misled him."{46} Thus from an apologetic position it became necessary to finally recognize which books were truly inspired and therefore authoritative. He then proceeded to list the 27 books of the New Testament, calling them "springs of salvation."{47} "Athanasius is the first writer known to us who listed exactly the twenty-seven books which traditionally make up the New Testament in catholic and orthodox Christianity, without making any distinction of status among them."{48} Thus, Athanasius represents the final step in the church's recognition of the New Testament canon. His 39th Easter festal letter is a "landmark"{49} in the history of Christianity and its sacred book, the New Testament.

Near the close of the fourth century there was no real debate over the contents of the New Testament. The two great church leaders Jerome (340-420) and Augustine (354-430) both "held to the inspiration and canonicity of our 27 books."{50} Jerome translated all 27 books into his famous Latin Vulgate Bible (which became the standard text of the church over 1000 years!). Augustine, who wrote prolifically, quoted from all 27 books in his writings, thus indicating their authority over both the church and individual believers.

Criteria for Recognizing the New Testament Canon

Once the early church saw the need for a defined canon, it carefully followed several criteria, or tests, to recognize canonical books which are inspired and belong in the New Testament.

Apostolic Authority.

The sine qua non of tests was Apostolic authority. If a book failed this test, it was discarded and not given a second hearing. It is important to distinguish between apostolic authority and apostolic authorship. The latter would require that each book or epistle be written by an apostle. However, this would omit such books as Mark, Luke, and Acts since they were not written by apostles. Thus the former test (apostolic authority) was no doubt the criteria which the early church employed. By this is meant that the books were written by apostles themselves or "by 'apostolic men,' companions of the apostles, those who came from apostolic circles and apostolic doctrines."{51} This would allow for books like Mark (whom most believe received his information from the apostle Peter) and Luke (a close associate of the apostle Paul). As William Barclay comments, “Apostolicity and canonicity went hand in hand.”{52}


This test limited the books to the Apostolic period, thus omitting any writings later than the first century. F. F. Bruce concludes that "Writings of later date, whatever their merit, could not be included among the apostolic or canonical books."{53} Consequently, even if a book was thoroughly orthodox in its theology and proved helpful in one's devotional life, it could not be considered canonical if it was written after the age of the apostles.


This next criteria carefully examined each book to see if its contents matched the apostolic teachings "maintained in the churches which had been founded by apostles."{54} The teachings of the apostles became a "rule of faith" which the churches employed to discern truth from error in doctrinal matters. Thus the early church would ask the following question to help determine if a book was canonical, "Does it agree with the doctrine, or rule of faith?"{55} If it did not, then it was not considered to be canonical.


This test considers how wide-spread a book was read in the churches. If a book was confined to a specific geographical location its canonicity was doubted. True canonical books enjoyed a wide-spread reading throughout the churches around the world as a whole.{56} It is interesting to note that the phrase "read in the churches" is "emphasized repeatedly in the writings of the Fathers, and is referred to in the Muratorian Fragment and elsewhere as a decisive proof that a book is canonical."{57} This test served to prevent the disputed books which were only read in some of the churches from being admitted into the canon.

Patristic Use.

The recognition and use of books and epistles by the early church Fathers was important in deciding which books were canonical and which were not. If a book under consideration was quoted by an early church Father, it added weight to its possibility of being canonical. In some cases a church Father's quotation of a passage helps to identify who the author of the book is (as in the case of the Gospel of John). Additionally, some of the writings of the early church Fathers contain lists of books which they believed to be inspired and thus canonical. This provided a helpful guideline in recognizing the canonicity of a book.{58}

Inherent Authority.

A truly canonical book would no doubt possess an inherent authority which would set it apart from the writings of a more general nature. Barclay observes that

Without question the books which are Scripture and which are truly the word of God have about them a self-evidencing quality. They carry their uniqueness on their face. To read them is to be conscious of being brought into the presence of God and truth and Jesus Christ in a unique way. They have always exercised, and still exercise, a quite unparalleled power upon the lives of men.{59}

Thus, one of the characteristics of a canonical book is that it had a unique self-evident authority which aided in its acceptance into the canon.

Witness of the Spirit.

This test indicates that the same Spirit who inspired the writers of the New Testament to record the words of Scripture also guided in the process of recognizing the canon. "It is held by the great writers, ancient and modern, and by great Church creeds and confessions, that above and beyond the common consent of the Church we have the perfect assurance of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit."{60}


  1. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: Some Chapters on the Transmission of the Bible, revised edition (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1963), 95.

  2. Ibid. Cf. the basic discussion in John R. Kohlenberger, III, Words About the Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 20-22.

  3. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 17. Cf. J. R. McRay, "Bible, Canon of." in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 140-41.

  4. David Ewert, A General Introduction to the Bible: From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 129, states that "no council ever made a book of the NT canonical. They simply affirmed those books that the church through long usage had found to speak with the voice of the living God."

  5. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1968), 195. Also see W. C. Weinrich, "Homologoumena," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 527.

  6. H. S. Miller, General Biblical Introduction: From God to Us, 4th ed. (Houghton, NY: Word-Bearer Press, 1944), 143.

  7. S. E. McClelland, "Antilegomena," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 57.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 146.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 199.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Photius refers to some 280 pseudepigrapha in the ninth century and more have been discovered since that time. See ibid., 200.

  14. The above list was taken from Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 146. For a fuller list with descriptions, see Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 200-201.

  15. Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 206.

  16. Howard F. Vos, "Apocrypha, New Testament," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 65.

  17. Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 202.

  18. Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abington, 1965), 101.

  19. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 146. As with the Pseudepigrapha, a fuller list with descriptions is found in Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 202-205.

  20. See Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 206.

  21. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 131.

  22. Ewert, General Introduction to the Bible, 129.

  23. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 132.

  24. Ibid. Cf. Reginald H. Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament (London: Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1971), 193.

  25. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 132-33.

  26. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 173.

  27. Ibid., 180.

  28. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 133.

  29. Everett Ferguson, "Marcion," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 685.

  30. See, for example, Ewert, General Introduction to the Bible, 133; Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible, trans. J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 135-152.

  31. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 144.

  32. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 134.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 191.

  35. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 159.

  36. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 135.

  37. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 192.

  38. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 135.

  39. See ibid. and Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 195-96.

  40. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 135.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Ibid., 135-36.

  44. Ibid., 136.

  45. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 198.

  46. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 136.

  47. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 209.

  48. Ibid.

  49. William Barclay, The Making of the Bible (New York: Abington, 1961), 87.

  50. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 137.

  51. Ibid., 140. Cf. D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 494; Metzger, The New Testament, 276.

  52. Barclay, The Making of the Bible, 62.

  53. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 259.

  54. Ibid., 260.

  55. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 140. Cf. Carson, Moo, and Morris, Introduction to the New Testament, 494; Metzger, The New Testament, 276.

  56. Carson, Moo, and Morris, Introduction to the New Testament, 495; Metzger, The New Testament, 276.

  57. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 140.

  58. See the discussion for this test in Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 262-63, and Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 140.

  59. Barclay, The Making of the Bible, 77.

  60. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, 141.

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