Lecture 3: The Canon and the Text of the New Testament

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How and why were the books in the New Testament chosen to form the canon we have today? The three major criteria are that the writings be widely accepted, non-contradictory with previously acknowledged revelation and genuinely going back to an apostle or close associate of an apostle. The four Gospels have similarities and differences in their content and writing style. Matthew, Mark and Luke have so many similarities that they are called the Synoptic Gospels. John is significantly different in content and style from the other three. (47 min.)

The Canon and the Text of the New Testament


I. How Was the Old Testament Canon Determined?

A. What is “Canon”?

B. The Hebrew Scriptures

C. The OT Apocryphal Books

D. The Pseudepigrapha

II. How was the New Testament Canon Determined?

A. Why were any books added to the Old Testament Canon?

1. The Open-ended Nature of the Old Testament

2. The Establishment of the New Covenant

3. Jesus’ Promises to the Disciples

B. Why these particular 27 books?

1. They were widely accepted by the Church as uniquely true and inspired.

2. They were linked to an Apostle.

3. They did not contradict previous Scripture.

C. What about those writings that were left out?

1. The Apostolic Fathers

2. The New Testament Apocrypha

3. The Gnostic Writings

4. What if we found new writings?

III. Is the Text of the New Testament Reliable?

A. The Number of Manuscripts (i.e copies)

B. The Nature of the Discrepancies

C. Some Longer Disputable Passages

1. The Ending of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:13)

2. The Ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20)

3. The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)

D. The Verse and Chapter References

IV. The Four Gospels

A. The Similarities and Differences among the Gospels

1. “Harmonies” of the Gospels

2. The “Synoptic” Gospels

3. The Uniqueness of John

B. Other Early Sources of Information about the Life of Christ

1. What other sources do we have?

2. What can we learn about Jesus from these sources?

3. What should we conclude from this information?

C. Methods for Explaining the Differences among the Gospels

1. The Traditional Approach

2. Source Criticism

3. Form Criticism

4. Redaction Criticism

5. Other Methods

D. Explaining the Uniqueness of the Gospel of John

1. The Traditional Explanation: Familiarity with the Synoptics

2. The Modern Explanation: Unfamiliarity with the Synoptics

3. A Hybrid Approach: Familiarity with the Stories


Name Description
1 Understanding the New Testament - Quiz 3

This quiz covers the material in Understanding the New Testament, Lesson 3 – The Canon and the Text of the New Testament.


  • Why do you think the early church believed it was important to establish which books of the Bible were “canonical“? Does it change how you view the New Testament to know that these books were intentionally and thoughtfully selected as being uniquely authoritative and inspired?
  • In what ways are the four Gospel accounts similar? In what ways are they different? Why are these differences important? Why might these differences also cause problems?


  • Does it bother you to realize that there are differences and discrepancies among the various copies of the New Testament? How might our confidence in the sovereignty of God and the continual work of the Holy Spirit help us deal with our concerns in this area? How could you encourage someone who was struggling with whether these discrepancies meant they could no longer trust the Bible?
  • What do you think of the various ways that people have come up with to explain the differences among the Gospels? How might each of these help us understand how the Gospels were written? Pause for a moment and put yourself in the place of the biblical authors as they sorted various sources (source criticism) and oral traditions (form criticism), editing them together (redaction criticism) to present an account of Jesus’s life that would be meaningful in their cultural context (socio-historical criticism). How can this help you appreciate these authors and what they accomplished?  How was the Holy Spirit involved in all of this? Why is that important?


47 min

Other resources

Recommended Reading

Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 87-127.

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