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The Canon of the New Testament

CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, THE. The twenty-seven books comprising the NT section of the Bible and which are regarded by the Christian Church as inspired and authoritative for doctrine and life.


The importance of the subject.

The Christian Church has preserved a collection of twenty-seven books which form the NT section of the Scriptures. The questions at once arise how these books came to be collected and how they came to be regarded as of equal authority with the OT. The history of the NT canon is an attempt to answer both these questions. The importance of such an inquiry depends on the place accorded to the NT in the modern church. If the NT is the major source of a Christian doctrine, it is essential to know on what basis the choice of its contents was made, for its authority cannot but be influenced by its origins. To what extent is the NT an authentic representation of the true Christian position of the 1st cent. church? How did general agreement regarding its authenticity develop? What part did ecclesiastical pronouncements play in the settlement of the canon? These and many other problems confront the investigator, and whereas some of them are simpler to answer than others, they must all be fairly faced if any adequate view of the NT is to be attained.

Some definitions of important terms.

The word “canon” (κανών, G2834), which is so generally used to describe the collection of NT books, had a variety of uses, but its basic meaning is that of a level or a rule, culled from building procedure. Such a tool must be of unbendable material and must be dependable for its straightness. Deviations would cause serious structural defects. In many respects the reliability of the rule (Lat. regula) would affect the stability of the whole super-structure which it was used to measure. This colorful word was applied to the accepted books in the sense that they formed a rule of faith (ὁ κανὼν τη̂ς πίστεως, regula fidei), a term later used in the Middle Ages of the confessional creed of the Church. Another derived meaning of the word “canon” is a list or catalog, and this became the more familiar usage in relation to the authorized character of NT books. Those books which were included in the lists were regarded as canonical (kanonikos) on the grounds that they were authorized to be read within the Church. Those books excluded from such public use, on the other hand, became uncanonical (akanonistos) and the process of including in or excluding from the canon was described by derivatives of the same word (e.g., kanonizein, apokanonizein). The further use of the word in connection with the decisions of church councils must not mislead one into thinking that the NT canon is an ecclesiastical creation. The evidence which is discussed below will show clearly that the concept of a canon long preceded the use of the word to describe it.

It was an important step in the development of the NT when the same word was used to describe the NT collection of books, as was used for the OT. The word diathēkē which is tr. “testament” is the normal Gr. word for “last will and testament,” but is also used both in the LXX and in the NT in the sense of “covenant.” It is because the OT was seen as a record of God’s covenant with man and the NT as a record of God’s covenant effected through Christ that this term was appropriate to both collections. The covenant in Christ was regarded as “new” (kainē) as compared with the “old” (palaia), yet these adjectives were not intended to destroy the sense of continuity. The old was not antiquated and the new was not youthful and untried. The old was still valuable and the new was fresh in respect to man’s knowledge. It was this realization of the unity between the OT and the NT which contributed not a little to the NT being placed on the same footing as the OT among the sacred writings of the Church.

The apostolic approach—the importance of the OT.

One of the most characteristic features of the NT writers is the frequency with which they quote the OT. In the great majority of instances the VS quoted is the LXX. There is no denying that the OT was regarded as Scripture by the Christian Church. It may be safely assumed that the Christians regarded the OT as inspired, in common with the Jews from whom they took over these Scriptures. Since the earliest Christians were Jewish, this would be expected. Moreover, there can be no doubt that Jesus shared the same view of the inspiration of the OT. The concept of an authoritative collection of sacred books was therefore provided before any of the NT books were written. It is almost certain that the contents of the OT had by this time been defined, although no official announcement had been made specifying which books were to be regarded as authorized. The nearest that the Jews came to doing this were the discussions held on the subject by the elders who met at Jamnia toward the end of the 1st cent. a.d. Whereas there were questionings about some of the books, there was no disputing the authoritative nature of any of them. These Jamnia elders, in fact, were merely confirming a usage which had been established for a considerable time. A parallel will be seen in the growth and ultimate acceptance of the NT canon.

This exalted view of the OT canon was an important factor in the procedure of early Christian worship, since the OT formed the basis for the earliest liturgies. This was true not only among the Jewish Christians, but also among the Gentiles, who accepted the OT as an inspired collection. The theme of fulfillment supplied the key for the interpretation of the Scripture. The NT writers were eager to show wherever the Christian Gospel was supported by an OT testimony. Of the evangelists, Matthew is specially notable in this respect. The Apostle Paul shows high regard for the OT and cites it in various ways, all of which points to his acceptance of it as authoritative.

Did the NT writers hold to degrees of canonicity within the OT? Was the Pentateuch regarded as superior to the historical books and the prophetical books? Where did the third division of the Heb. Scriptures, the Writings, figure in early Christian thought? There is no evidence to support the view that any differentiation was made, for testimonies are cited from all the sections apparently with equal authority. This observation is significant because a similar approach came to be made toward the NT collection of books.

At an early stage in Christian worship the desire must have arisen to place alongside the readings from the OT, which may well have followed a Jewish lectionary cycle, other statements drawn from the teachings of Jesus. It was implicit in Christian theology that Jesus not only fulfilled the OT, but went beyond it in His teaching. His modifications of the Mosaic law in the Sermon on the Mount shows the authoritative nature of His teaching, as compared with the considerable authority of Moses. It is unthinkable that any long period of time elapsed before the words of Jesus were regarded in the same light as the OT. This would invest any written gospel which recorded much of the teaching of Jesus with special authority. Naturally such teaching could not be considered in isolation from the historical events of the life and death of Jesus, and this would give significance to the narratives of His doings. The crucial question which needs to be asked about the NT canon, even at this early stage, is what criterion the Christians used for determining what gospel records were to be regarded as authoritative. A distinction must be made at once between the authority of the words of Jesus and the authority of the records of that teaching. Inevitably the former affected the latter. The gospels were not at first, as the evidence from the apostolic fathers of the 2nd cent. will show, cited in the same authoritative way as the OT, although it was not long before this happened.

It will be clear that no idea of a canon of NT Scriptures could be conceived in the earliest period of the Christian Church, because for a time oral teaching was regarded more highly than written testimony. This is in complete accord with Jewish procedure in relation to the oral law, which was as authoritative as the written code. In the case of the teaching of Jesus it is impossible to be certain precisely how this was orally transmitted, but it may well have happened in accordance with Jewish methods of committing oral teaching to memory (cf. B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript [1960]). The necessity for written forms in which the teaching became fixed was evident as soon as eyewitnesses (particularly the apostles) were removed by death.

In the process of development the written gospels naturally took precedence over the other writings, but no great interval elapsed before the expositions of the apostles would have been treasured almost as highly. Indeed, by the mid-2nd cent. the two sets of writings, the gospels and the Pauline epistles, were placed on a parity. The process by which the Pauline epistles were grouped into a collection is somewhat shrouded. One theory is that the apostle suffered a period of neglect after his death (cf. E. J. Goodspeed, C. L. Mitton), and that it was not until the publication of Acts that sufficient interest revived to give impetus to the collecting of his epistles. The theory is too speculative, relying as it does on the most unlikely event of the memory of so dynamic a personality as the Apostle Paul, so quickly fading from mind even among those churches which he founded. A more reasonable supposition is that interest in the apostle among those churches founded by him would have prompted the desire to discover more of his writings and that this desire would have been assisted by the knowledge possessed by Paul’s closest associates about the churches to which he wrote (e.g., Timothy, Titus, Tychicus). It is known that Paul himself encouraged the interchange of his epistles (cf. Col 4:16) and there is no reason why this should not have led fairly rapidly to a collection of his epistles. What was true for Paul’s epistles was true also for any other writings whose apostolic origin could be assured.

The great importance of apostolicity in the development of the NT canon is seen in the great number of pseudepigraphical works which were attributed to apostles in an attempt to provide rival sources for doctrine (mostly of an heretical nature). This principle of apostolicity will be amply illustrated in the following survey of patristic evidence.

Another factor determining the choice of which writings should be collected was suitability for public reading. Since it was necessary for Christian writings to be used in the same way as the OT books if they were to share equal authority, it was essential for them to form part of the lectionary cycle. Some of the general epistles were clearly not particularly adaptable for this purpose and this may account for the doubts which existed in some quarters concerning them (e.g., 2 and 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter).

A powerful impetus toward the formation of the NT canon came from the Church’s resistance to heretical books. When sects, Gnostic and otherwise, claimed support for their doctrines from secret sources and secret books, the need for the orthodox Church to make clear its own authentic sources became urgent. The purpose of the NT canon was not only to define the authorized books, but also to exclude the spurious and heretical. A different tendency was seen in Marcion’s canon (see below), which set out to provide an authorized list to be used in his own heretical church, but which excluded many books used by orthodox Christians. The existence of such a list must have shown the need for a clear understanding of orthodox usage. Local churches would desire a uniform usage with other churches.

It is against this background of general considerations that the specific evidence for the NT canon will now be examined. The nature of this evidence will be twofold. It will consist mainly of patristic allusions and citations from NT books. It will also include certain patristic comments relating to the acceptance or otherwise of Christian writings. Unfortunately, the earliest period is not prolific in evidence of citation, and it is not until the time of Irenaeus that authors became more specific and their citations considerably more numerous. It will be convenient, therefore, to divide the early history of the canon into (a) evidence from the period before a.d. 180; (b) evidence from a.d. 180-300; and (3) evidence from the 4th cent.

Evidence from the second century apostolic fathers and apologists.

The earliest patristic testimony is that of Clement of Rome who wrote his epistles to the Corinthians just before the turn of the cent. (c. a.d. 96). The first fact which strikes the reader of his epistle is the large number of citations from the OT and the paucity of specific references to the NT books. For Clement the OT is obviously more important to cite than any NT writings. It is, in fact, the main source of Christian doctrine. His interpretation of the OT is basically Christian. He frequently cites it as Scripture with an introductory formula (“It is written”) which is never used of any NT books. Yet this does not mean that the words of Christ did not possess for Clement an authority parallel to the OT, for it is from his knowledge of Christ that Clement obtains his interpretation of the OT. When he does cite the gospels, the citations are few and loose. This contrasts with the accuracy with which the LXX is generally reproduced. Clement cites some of Paul’s epistles, but it is impossible to say which epistles his collection included. Those certainly known are Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians. The Epistle to the Hebrews is sufficiently well known and esteemed to be cited, in one passage fairly extensively. There are less certain allusions drawn from the pastoral epistles and James. It would seem a fair deduction that in Clement’s time it was customary for Christians to become so familiar with NT language and thought that they echoed its language even when they did not specifically cite it.

In the Didache occurs the first mention of a written gospel. The Lord’s prayer at the communion service is attributed to the Lord “in His gospel.” The word “gospel” is used four times in the sense of a written gospel. It is impossible to say how many gospels were known and used at this time, but it is not improbable that the author knew of the four gospels.

The Epistles of Ignatius are interesting in various respects. By far the greatest impact upon Ignatius from NT books came from the epistles of Paul. There are many instances of his acquaintance with the language of these epistles. On one occasion Ignatius mentions that Paul remembers the readers (i.e., the Ephesians) “in every epistle,” a statement which causes perplexity, but at least bears witness to some kind of Pauline Corpus of letters. It is significant that Ignatius’ own letters were soon collected into a corpus numbering seven epistles, which may possibly bear some relationship to the already existing Pauline Corpus (the Muratorian List, for details of which see below, speaks of Paul’s letters to seven churches). In addition to these epistles, Ignatius’ language also shows affinity with John’s gospel, which may be evidence of his acquaintance with it and his esteem for it. But some would dispute this (cf. J. N. Sanders).

In the brief letter of Polycarp there is a greater evidence of knowledge of NT books. The references do not occur as citations but are woven into Polycarp’s language. He appears to know Matthew, Luke, 1 and 2 John, 1 Peter, and several of the Pauline epistles. Of special significance is his acquaintance with 1 Timothy and Titus, which leaves no doubt that he regarded them as possessing equal authority with the other letters of Paul. In one statement Polycarp mentions Paul’s epistles written to the readers (i.e., the church at Philippi), which is perplexing since only one such letter is extant. It is not impossible that Polycarp may have been including the letters sent to the other Macedonian church (i.e. 1 and 2 Thessalonians).

No book written by Papias remains extant, but from extracts preserved by Eusebius, it is clear that he knew Matthew and Mark and highly regarded them. The Epistle of Barnabas is interesting for the purpose chiefly because of a canonical citation (“many are called but few are chosen”) which is introduced by the formula “It is written.” The gospels by this time are being put on a level with the OT as Scripture.

In the middle of the 2nd cent. Justin Martyr, in one of his writings, refers to the fact that in Rome it was customary for Christians to listen to the reading of the apostolic memoirs or the writings of the prophets when they met on Sunday. The latter of these groups would appear to refer to the OT and the former to the gospels. There is little doubt that Justin knew and used the four gospels, although he does not quote any of the evangelists by name. He refers to the memoirs of Peter, by which he evidently means the gospel of Mark. Sometimes the gospels are cited in Justin’s Dialogue with the formula, “It is written.” Of the other NT books, he is familiar with the Apocalypse, which is mentioned by name and is regarded as the work of the Apostle John. There is no mention of Paul or his letters, although the language shows acquaintance with some of the Pauline epistles (notably Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians). The Epistle to the Hebrews is known and used by him.

The influence of Justin may be seen in the work of his pupil Tatian, who after leaving Rome in a.d. 170 for the E joined the heretical sect of the Encratites. Before his departure from Rome Tatian produced a harmony of the four gospels (the Diatessaron), which consisted of the interweaving of passages from each of them. Because Tatian, like his teacher Justin, seems to have accepted some apocryphal material, some have preferred to call his harmony Diapente. The importance of Tatian’s harmony in the history of the canon lies rather in the fact that it was rejected. Although widely used, it was displaced even in the Syr. speaking church, where it had most influence, by the separate gospels. There was an obvious advantage in having a harmony rather than four different accounts, but the latter was deemed preferable as a more authentic fourfold testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus.

During this early period some evidence regarding the NT canon may be culled from heretical sources. When heterodox writers cite canonical books, it is evidence that these books must have been regarded first as authoritative in orthodox circles before being taken over and re-interpreted by deviating sects. It is significant that the first commentary on any NT books came from the pen of the Gnostic Heracleon, who wrote commentaries on both Luke and John. Similarly, Basilides is said to have written twenty-four books of exposition on the gospels. Among the Valentinians, many of Paul’s epistles were known and quoted, together with many apocryphal works like the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, and the Acts of John. The recently discovered Gospel of Truth echoes the language of most of the NT books, according to W. C. van Unnik, although some of the evidence is admittedly slight. The more recently published Gospel of Thomas shows acquaintance with the canonical gospels, although it also contains many sayings of Jesus not contained in the gospels. The Gospel of Philip, also recently published, does not show the same affinity for the canonical material. The fact that some of these Valentinian productions are attributed to apostles and purport to belong to the same literary genre as the canonical gospels shows in what high regard the latter were held. Imitation is a form of flattery, and in this case shows a high concept of the model.

Of a different character was the part played by Marcion in the development of a NT canon. It is strange that the first authoritative collection of Christian books should come from a heterodox source, but it was imperative for Marcion to define clearly the authorized sources of his doctrine, since those sources were considerably more restricted than those used by the orthodox church. He rejected the OT and therefore had no basic Scripture with which the Christian books could be compared. Moreover, his decision to base his doctrinal opinions on the theology of Paul made it necessary for him to specify a canon of authorized epistles. His use of ten epistles (excluding the Pastoral Epistles) exclusively Pauline, reflects the fact that he regarded Paul as the only true apostle. His linking of Luke with this Apostolikon was most likely because of Luke’s closer acquaintance with Paul than any of the other evangelists. There may have been another reason. Of all the gospels Luke’s is least Judaistic, and what traces there were could be expurgated. It was not without considerable justification that Tertullian complained that Marcion criticized with a penknife. The real importance of Marcion in the history of the NT canon does not lie in his textual modifications or in the rejection of these modifications in the orthodox church, but in the composition of his canon. The linking of gospel with apostle must have been taken over from the practice of the orthodox church, in spite of the theory of those who would maintain that Marcion began the idea of a NT canon (cf. Harnack). This latter view can be maintained only in the sense of a fixed or closed canon of authoritative books, which did not happen in the orthodox church for some period subsequent to Marcion. The idea of canonical books must have preceded Marcion’s time. It is more reasonable to suppose that Marcion selected one gospel out of four and one apostle out of many than to suppose that the church built up its own canon on the basis of Marcion’s defective canon. It may well have been in reaction to Marcion’s position that the church generally came to view the necessity for a clearer definition of its own authoritative books. It staunchly maintained the OT as Scripture and showed its gospels and epistles to be more broadly based than Marcion’s canon. It is significant that Marcion’s rejection of Acts was contrary to the opinion everywhere in the orthodox church. He was clearly influenced by his desire to exclude anything which drew attention to any apostles other than Paul. (For a full discussion of Marcion’s canon, cf. E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence [1948].)

Some time during the 2nd cent. there were attached to the Pauline epistles some prologues which are generally reckoned to be of Marcionite origin, either from Marcion himself or from his followers. These Marcionite prologues stress the Jewish opposition to the true Gospel. They bear testimony to Marcion’s influence, because they became attached to many Vul. MSS later on. There are also what are known as the Anti-Marcionite prologues to the gospels, of which those attached to Mark, Luke and John have survived, the last not thought to be dated as early as the other two. It has been suggested that these were attached to the four gospels when the church published the fuller canon in response to, and in opposition to Marcion’s truncated canon (so, de Bruyne, Révue Bénédictine [1928], pp. 193-214). But it is more probable that the fourfold canon already enjoyed undisputed sway before Marcion’s canon as maintained above.

To sum up the position prior to a.d. 180: it is clear that the NT canon may be divided into the two main divisions, gospels and apostles. In the former group there is no doubt that these were restricted to four, in spite of the emergence of other contenders for canonicity. Among the apostles, Paul, Peter and John take precedence, for there is certainty about the acceptance of thirteen Pauline epistles, 1 Peter and 1 John. Evidence for the other Catholic Epistles does not follow until later. Acts and the Apocalypse (practically everywhere regarded as apostolic) were also included in the acknowledged books. There can be doubt, moreover, that the idea of canonicity at this stage was closely dependent on the concept of apostolicity. It is impossible to know how early collections were made, but this cannot be put later than the early part of the 2nd cent. Indeed, the earliest specific reference to a collection of Paul’s epistles comes from within the NT itself (2 Peter 3:15, 16). In spite of the fact that no official list had by this time been published, nor in fact was published for a considerable time to come, the usage of the churches was sufficiently settled for such official sanction to be unnecessary. The orthodox church did not follow Marcion’s example because there was general agreement about apostolic sources. The next period supplies more prolific evidence and reveals more clearly the process whereby the disputed books came to be acknowledged.

From Irenaeus to Origen.

In considering the next period one finds that the evidence is dominated mainly by important personalities, but the significance of their testimony rests on the churches they represent. It may reasonably be supposed that they adopt the general point of view of their own churches. The first witness is Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyons in Gaul during the persecution which raged in the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. It is usually supposed that Irenaeus was the author of the letter of the churches of Lyons and Vienne sent to Pope Eleutherus, following which he was made bishop. This letter reflects the language of several Pauline epistles (Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy), two other epistles (1 Peter and 1 John) and two gospels (Luke and John). It should be noted that at the time when this letter was written there was still living in the same community the aged Pothinus (ninety years old) who was a direct link with the apostolic age. Irenaeus himself claims to have heard Polycarp and would no doubt have been influenced by his attitude toward the accepted books. Irenaeus is also important because he combines the viewpoints of the E and the W. There was no doubt in Irenaeus’ mind that four gospels only were to be recognized, for he based this on the fourfold character of the winds, the four quarters of the earth, and the covenants of God with men. The method of argument may sound quaint, but the strength of the witness is undeniable. The fourfold gospel was, moreover, a direct refutation of the single gospel tradition of some of the Gnostic sects. Irenaeus also claims that the fourfold gospel is held together by the one Spirit, an early foreshadowing of a doctrine of inspiration. With reference to the gospels, Irenaeus comments on the respective origins of each. Matthew was written for the Jews; Mark wrote down the themes of Peter’s preaching; Luke put down Paul’s gospel; and John, the Lord’s disciple, published his gospel in Ephesus. In spite of his uncritical approach, Irenaeus’ testimony is valuable because of the strong sense of the importance of apostolicity behind the gospels. In addition to these, Irenaeus’ canon included Acts, the thirteen epistles of Paul (although he does not cite from Philemon), 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, and the Apocalypse. One book not now in the NT is cited with the formula “Scripture says,” i.e., the Shepherd of Hermas.

From Gaul, turn next to Africa. For the views of this church one may appeal to Tertullian, a learned presbyter at Carthage at the end of the 2nd cent. He restricts himself to the four gospels as records of the life and teaching of Jesus. He maintains the apostolicity of all four by showing that Mark spoke for Peter and that Luke spoke for Paul, for he considered it permissible that pupils should speak in their master’s name. There could be no clearer example of the importance of apostolicity as a basis for canonicity. Moreover Tertullian made much of antiquity as a factor in the authority of the writings, for he maintained that truth must precede forgery. He acknowledged all the epistles of the Apostle Paul (except that he does not cite from Philemon). Although he knew the Epistle to the Hebrews, he did not regard it as Paul’s but as Barnabas’, and makes practically no use of it. Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John, and the Apocalypse are often used and accepted by him. The brief Epistle of Jude also is accepted as authoritative and apostolic.

There are three witnesses from Alexandria. Clement, a man of considerable breadth of learning, is notable for the extent of his canon. The fact that he had traveled widely may well have contributed to his eclectic tendencies. He is not averse to using non-canonical gospels, and on one occasion cites a saying from the Gospel According to the Hebrews, but clearly distinguishes this from those “that have been handed down” (i.e., the four gospels). Nevertheless, Clement’s NT was wider than most of his contemporaries. He knew and used practically all the books in the NT, but there is some dispute about his use of James, 2 Peter, and 3 John. None of these is cited in the fragmentary remains of Clement’s works. But Eusebius states that he commented on all the Catholic epistles, even those that were disputed (HE VI: 14: 1). His canon of Pauline epistles included the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which he was no doubt influenced by his teacher Pantaenus. In addition, he commented on the Epistle of Barnabas and the Apocalypse of Peter, and had considerable respect for such books as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Preaching of Peter.

The eclectic tendency is seen also in his successor as head of the catechetical school, Origen. In many respects Origen shares the broad approach of Clement toward the NT. He knows and uses all the canonical books of the NT, although he does mention doubts about some of them. There is no hesitation about the four gospels or the Pauline epistles addressed to churches which he founded. Origen does not seem to have disputed the Pastorals or Philemon. Nor did he question 1 Peter as apostolic, and he acknowledged the possibility that 2 Peter was genuine. Similarly 1 John is genuine and possibly 2 and 3 John (although he says, all do not allow that these are genuine). The Apocalypse he acknowledged to be by John, the same author who wrote the epistles, i.e., the apostle. His denial of the Pauline authorship of Hebrews is well known, although he acknowledges that the thoughts are Paul’s. He mentions that the ancients regarded it as Paul’s, but some considered it to have been written by Clement of Rome or Luke. The important factor is that Origen can maintain anonymity for this epistle without affecting his view of canonicity, no doubt because of its Pauline flavor. Of the other Catholic epistles, James and Jude often are quoted, mostly as Scripture. James is generally referred to as the “apostle.” Origen mentions the doubts of some regarding both these books. There are three other books, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas which were also regarded as Scripture, although some doubts are mentioned. Works like 1 Clement and the Acts of Paul were used, but not accepted as canonical. Origen asserts that the Gospel According to the Hebrews was disputed by the Church as a whole. Of special interest is the fact that Origen sets the whole NT collection alongside the OT collection as forming the divine Scriptures of the New Covenant, both sections having been given by the same Spirit.

The third Alexandrian is Dionysius, a pupil of Origen, who, although strictly later than Origen, succeeded him in the catechetical school, and shares much the same approach. The Epistle to the Hebrews, however, he regarded as Pauline. Dionysius knows of the Epistle of James and says that 2 and 3 John were circulating as the work of John. He seems to have accepted their authenticity. His main contribution to this study is his comment on the Apocalypse of John. He rejected a common authorship with the Gospel and 1 John on the grounds of the character of the writing, the form of language, and general construction. It will be seen from this that Dionysius felt that he could exercise freedom over canonical matters to the extent of denying the apostolic authorship of a book which had been generally accepted as coming from the pen of the Apostle John. In spite of his questionings, Dionysius did not dispute the canonicity of the book.

From Alexandria, turn next to Rome. The witness will be a fragmentary list known as the Muratorian Canon, which is extant in Lat., but may have had a Gr. source. It may be dated toward the end of the 2nd cent. It is valuable evidence for the state of the canon in the Rom. world of that time. Its text is corrupt and incomplete, and its Lat. style is poor. It claims to have been written in the time of Pope Pius of Rome, which confirms its connection with the Roman church. It begins with the third gospel, which is said to have been written by Luke. It evidently originally referred to Matthew and Mark, since it refers to Luke’s gospel as the third, but the earlier portion is now lacking. There is an interesting statement made regarding the writing of the fourth gospel. When the companions of John the apostle asked him to write about Jesus, he asked them to fast with him for three days to find out God’s will. That night it was revealed to Andrew that John should write a gospel in his own name, but that all were to check it. John is then said to have been an eyewitness and 1 John 1:1 is cited in support of this claim. It is to be noted that the writer of this canon does not distinguish between the gospels written by the apostles and the others, and does not question the authority of the latter or mention any doubt concerning them. The fourfold gospel is clearly established and no other gospel is permitted to challenge its supremacy. Moreover, the essential unity of the four gospels is acknowledged. “Though various ideas are taught in each of the gospels, it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since in all of them all things are declared by one sovereign Spirit.” This latter statement agrees with the view of Irenaeus and suggests a general recognition of this doctrine of the Spirit as far as the gospels were concerned. The Book of Acts is acknowledged as Luke’s and is said to contain “Acts of all the Apostles which fell under his notice.” In illustration of this, the omission of reference to Peter’s death and of Paul’s visit to Spain are mentioned. The description may be intended to distinguish the canonical Acts from apocryphal Acts, which purported to give the experiences of individual apostles. Or it may be intended to combat Marcion’s appeal to a single apostle.

Next in order of mention are Paul’s epistles. Those addressed to churches are numbered as seven and are paralleled to the letters to the churches of Asia mentioned in the Apocalypse. There are comments on the purpose of some of these epistles, after which they are listed in the following order—Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, Thessalonians, Romans. The number is thus achieved by combining the two epistles sent to the churches of Corinth and Thessalonica. The non-church epistles, Philemon and the Pastorals, are then mentioned separately and are said to be “sanctified by ordinances of ecclesiastical discipline and honor of the Catholic church.” Church usage clearly plays an important part in their authority. These comments on the genuine letters are followed by a reference to two forged Pauline letters, which is valuable for the information it gives of the circulation of such epistles. One was to the Laodiceans and one to the Alexandrians. These are said to have been forged under the name of Paul, and support the heresy of Marcion. The writer says that in addition to these there are several others which cannot be received in the Catholic church because they teach error. Nothing is now known of either of the letters bearing on Marcion’s heresy, but it is possible that the former may be an allusion to Marcion’s title for the canonical Ephesians. The writer of the Muratorian Canon comments that gall cannot be mixed with honey.

Of the other NT books, Jude and two epistles of John are received. The two Johannine epistles are in all probability 2 and 3 John, as 1 John is cited earlier in the fragment, but 1 and 2 John may be meant. For some strange reason the Book of Wisdom is mentioned next as having been written in Solomon’s honor by his friends, but nothing is said about its canonicity. The Apocalypses of John and of Peter are received, but some do not allow the latter to be read in church. This is a clear example of difference of opinion regarding canonicity. Zahn emended the text at this point to make it refer to 1 and 2 Peter instead of to the Apocalypse of Peter, in which case the difference of opinion relates to 2 Peter. The emendation is not supported by any independent evidence. The fragment ends with a reference to the Shepherd of Hermas, which though recommended for private reading was not authorized for public use.

The main importance of this Rom. canon lies in the absence from it of four books which were later acknowledged to be canonical. The state of the text does not allow any conclusions regarding the author’s attitude to any of these books (Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter). There is a lack of cohesion in parts of this MS which supports the theory that there is a chasm in the text. Another interesting feature of this list is that it is not presenting a private opinion but a church opinion. There would also appear to be a clear distinction between apostolic and non-apostolic writings, although the principle of apostolicity is not specifically stated.

One other consideration from the period under review is the effect of Montanism on the NT canon. It laid such stress upon the prophetic gifts of the Spirit that it made increasingly necessary a definition of the limits within which the apostolic message might be expected to be contained. A movement like Montanism merely helped to hasten a process which was integral to the growth and development of apostolic Christianity.

Some reference must be made to the content of the NT canon as far as it can be ascertained from the early VSS. The Lat. VS no doubt conformed to Tertullian’s canon, but the evidence for the contents of the Old Lat. VS is not early enough for one to be certain. All one can do is to take the position of Cyprian in the mid-3rd cent. as a fair indication of what the Latins generally regarded as authoritative books. Cyprian certainly accepted the gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and the Apocalypse. The other books are not referred to and presumably were not placed on the same footing as those named. The Syr. VS in its earlier history is significant for its preference for the separated gospels over Tatian’s Diatessaron. Its later history throws interesting light on the disputed books and will be mentioned below.

The fourth century.


The evidence of a church historian of the caliber of Eusebius of Caesarea is of great importance, because he sought the usage of all the churches and made it his business to give as comprehensive a picture as possible. He speaks of seven Catholic epistles as if these formed a separate group, although not all the books were accepted by all the churches. James was regarded as spurious by some. Jude, however, is not only mentioned by the ancients, but is publicly read with the others in churches. First Peter is regarded as indisputable, but 2 Peter is not treated as canonical (endiathekon), although diligently read with other Scriptures. Other writings attributed to Peter are definitely rejected. Second and 3 John are disputed, while Eusebius cannot quite make up his mind about the Apocalypse, which some regard as doubtful. All the other books are accepted. There were four gospels, fourteen epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), and 1 Peter and 1 John, all of which were acknowledged (homologoumena). Eusebius had another classification which he called disputed books (antilegomena), which he divided into two parts known as “disputed” and “spurious.” It would have been clearer had Eusebius not included these two groups under the same head, for the former group consisted of books generally accepted but disputed by some, while the latter group was not accepted by any church as Scripture. Under the disputed books, Eusebius places James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. Under the spurious books are classed such works as the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the Gospel to the Hebrews, and the Apocalypse of Peter, all books which had limited support but which were never generally accepted. It appears that Eusebius would also place in this group the Apocalypse of John, although some accept it. A third group which Eusebius names consists of heretical works such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas and Matthias and the Acts of Andrew and John. It is important to note that while Eusebius assigns most of the apocryphal books, which are clearly imitations (at least in title) of the canonical books, to the heretical group, he does not do this with the Acts of Paul and the Apocalypse of Peter.

Eusebius is important because in the portion of his ecclesiastical history from which the above information is drawn, he is clearly differentiating his own private opinion from the general ecclesiastical point of view. In his time the NT of most of the churches consisted of all the books in the present NT, with the possible exception of the Apocalypse. By separating the Antilegomena from the Homologoumena, Eusebius appears to be admitting degrees of canonicity, although he does not make a specific point of this.


It was customary for bishops to address Easter letters to their congregations, and one such letter, written by Athanasius in a.d. 367, at the end of his long episcopacy, is of special importance in the history of the NT canon. He gives a list of the OT and NT books which are “handed down and believed to be divine.” The reason why such a list was necessary is clearly stated. Some were being led astray by “the villainy of certain men, and thereafter begin to consort with others, the so-called secret (books), being deceived by their possession of the same names as the genuine books.” Athanasius’ NT list contains the twenty-seven books of the present canon arranged in order, four gospels, Acts, Catholic Epistles, Pauline Epistles, and the Apocalypse of John. Hebrews is included among the epistles of Paul. These books are picturesquely described as the “springs of salvation”; “in these alone is the good news of the teaching of true religion proclaimed.” Certain other books may be read by those “coming forward to receive oral instruction in the word of true religion”—i.e., the Wisdom of Solomon and other OT apocryphal books with the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. Athanasius is particularly condemnatory of secret books which deceive and cause dissensions. Even what is good in such books should be ignored since it comes from the cunning of men.

This testimony is valuable because it represents the best thought of the influential church at Alexandria and undoubtedly had a widespread effect in consolidating the canon of the Eastern church. It must not, however, be supposed that in this Easter letter Athanasius was imposing an alien opinion upon his churches. The letter rather presents a clarification of an established usage.

The canon of the Syriac church.

The Syr. church had a more restricted canon generally than the other churches in the E. The influence of Tatian’s Diatessaron in the early stages has already been mentioned, but the separated gospels of the Old Syr. displaced it. In the second part of the 4th cent. some indication of the attitude toward the canon in the Syr. speaking church is given by a document called the Doctrine of Addai, which refers to “The Law and the Prophets and...the Gospel...and the Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Twelve Apostles...these books read...in the Church of God, and with these read no others.” The absence of all the Catholic Epistles and the Apocalypse is to be noted, as also the mention of “gospel” in the sing., presumably the Diatessaron. Another canonical list dated about a.d. 400 gives an identical list, except that the four gospels are now named. Neither of the Syr. fathers, Aphraates and Ephraem, makes reference to the Catholic epistles. It should be observed that Hebrews was included as Pauline.

When the Peshitta (edited by Rabbula, bishop of Edessa, a.d. 411-435) was produced to provide a revision of the Old Syriac, it became the standard VS of the Syr. church. The separated gospels alone were now authorized, and three Catholic epistles (1 Peter, 1 John, James) were included. The missing books were therefore four Catholic epistles (2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude) and the Apocalypse. It was during the next cent. that these were added, for the next revision of the Peshitta, known as the Philoxenian revision (a.d. 508) contained all the books. This seems to represent the settled state of the Syr. canon, for a cent. later the Harklean revision contains the same books.

The approach of the western church to the canon.

It already has been mentioned that in the W at the time of Cyprian there was no use made of the following books: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. It was not until the 4th cent. that these were received and it will be most convenient to mention each separately. From the time of Hilary of Poitiers, several Lat. Fathers treat Hebrews as canonical. The unknown writer referred to as Ambrosiaster accepted its canonicity, but cited it anonymously. Lucifer of Cagliari, Priscillian, and other Latins regarded it as Paul’s. Not so Jerome, who mentions that the Roman church did not receive it as Paul’s, while Augustine at first cited it as Paul’s but later used it anonymously. By this time canonicity could be maintained independently of Paul’s authorship. Subsequent to Augustine, it was received everywhere.

Of the Catholic Epistles, Hilary quotes only three (1 Peter, 1 John, and James). Priscillian, Ambrosiaster, Jerome, and Augustine included all seven. Jerome observed that 2 and 3 John were not ascribed to John the apostle, but to John the presbyter of Ephesus. Second John, although not used by Hilary, had been earlier (a.d. 256) cited as the work of the apostle by Aurelius. The history of Jude is interesting, for after being mentioned in the Muratorian Canon as received, and being referred to as apostolic and authoritative by Tertullian, it seems to have fallen into neglect for a period until the time of Ambrosiaster and Priscillian. After Augustine’s time its position as Scripture was assured.

Some observation needs to be made on the reason for the greater reserve in the W as compared with the E. The Easterners generally had a stronger eclectic tendency than the Westerners, but unless the Eastern canon had been soundly based on more reliable usage than the personal characteristics of its members it would never have influenced so strongly the Western church to come into alignment with it. It must be remembered, moreover, that the Easterners were closer to the traditions than their western brethren. It is worth observing that the same tendencies which are seen in the history of the canon during this period are seen also in the history of theology, with the church of Alexandria playing the dominant role.

The councils and the canon.

Not until the middle of the 4th cent. was it considered necessary for any general pronouncements on the subject of the canon to be made at church councils. It did not happen, in fact, until nearly three centuries of church usage had virtually fixed the canon. In spite of the variety of churches, subjected as they were to different influences and each exercising independent judgment regarding the separate books, the area of common agreement was remarkable. It may have been some considerable time before the matter of the inclusion of the minor Catholic epistles and the Apocalypse was settled, but the cautious way in which these books were received is a fitting testimony to the vigilance of the churches.

There is a list affixed to the canons of the Council of Laodicea (a.d. 363), although it has been suggested that the list may have been added later. It contains all the books except the Apocalypse. It is this omission that distinguishes it from the list in Athanasius’ Easter letter. Thirty years later the Council of Hippo in Africa agreed to a list identical with that of Athanasius. At Carthage four years after that (a.d. 397) another canonical list was agreed upon which comprised all the NT books. Augustine was present at this council. It should be noted that in this list there was reluctance to class Hebrews as written by Paul. This council marks the fixing of the NT canon until the time of the Reformation, when certain problems concerning it were reopened. But during the Middle Ages there are hints here and there of questionings.

The Middle Ages.

It is necessary to draw attention to these questionings because they form the background of the Reformation awakening. Although the Peshitta VS of the Syr. NT had been revised to include the disputed books, the unrevised Peshitta, with its twenty-two books, was still being copied during this period. On the other hand, the Ethiopic canon was considerably enlarged by the addition of eight other books which come under the head of Clement and Synodus.

During the 6th cent. a monk named Cosmas, who had been a merchant and had traveled widely, not only reported that the Syrians accepted only three Catholic epistles, but that he himself regarded them all suspiciously. His was, however, an isolated opinion.

There are some incidental evidences of differences of opinion over the Revelation of John. In the list of Nicephorus in the 9th cent. it was placed among the disputed books, but Photius during the same period accepted it as Scripture (as did Arethas who wrote a commentary upon it).

The Western church was too dominated by the views of Augustine and Jerome to show much deviation, although a few Lat. MSS of this period included the Shepherd of Hermas.

The most significant feature of this whole period was the ecclesiastical monopoly on the interpretation of Scripture, which virtually meant that the canon had ceased to be supported by common usage of the churches, but was buttressed by the hierarchy of the Roman church. It was this approach that led to the condemnation of Tyndale and others who produced Bibles in the language of the people. Authority which had earlier rested in Scripture had now been transferred to the Church. Such was the medieval background against which the opinions of the Reformers on the canon must be considered.

The Reformation period.

Not all the questionings came from the Reformers themselves. There were some powerful voices from within the Rom. church which reveal that the Renaissance had not left that church entirely unaffected in its approach to the canon. These witnesses will be considered first.

The Roman church.

Cardinal Ximenes, in his famous printed Polyglot (1522), made a beginning by separating the OT Apoc. from the other books. Erasmus brought an inquiring mind to the problems of the canon. In the introduction to his Gr. NT (1st ed. 1516) he made several comments on NT books. He rejected the Pauline origin of the Epistle to the Hebrews on grounds of style and doctrine, but he expressed the view that this does not make it of less value. He admitted that it was most closely akin to the spirit and soul of Paul. The Epistle of James, in his view, does not show the dignity and gravity of an apostle, although Erasmus affirmed its authority. He mentioned in this connection the doubts of so great a man as Jerome. He noted doubts on 2 Peter and Jude and regarded 2 and 3 John as by the Presbyter. He distinguished the style of the Apocalypse from the style of John’s gospel and 1 John, and disputed that John the evangelist was the author. One of his arguments is drawn from the fact that in the gospel the author does not give his own name, and that in the Apocalypse he does. In this he is reminiscent of the 3rd cent. Alexandrian Dionysius; but there is conflict in the mind of Erasmus. Is he to follow the dictates of his own reflections upon the canon or the accepted usage? He dutifully submits to the authority of the Church, but recognizes the right of the spiritual man to come to his own conclusions. What was only implicit in Erasmus became explicit in Luther in his eventual rejection of the supreme authority of the Church. Because Erasmus’ opinions ran counter to ecclesiastical policy, his attitude was condemned later at the Theological Faculty of Paris in 1526 with the contention that it was not right for a Christian to call in question the names which the Church has received as authors.

Of special interest are the views of a man like Cardinal Caietan, who although he opposed Luther at Augsburg in 1518, nevertheless shared something of his freedom of approach to the canon. He appealed to the authority of Jerome for disputing Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. Jerome did not himself reject these books. Caietan favored 2 Peter and dismissed the Apocalypse. Regarding Hebrews, he considered that if it was not by Paul it is not clear that it is canonical, a highly independent opinion. Moreover, he admitted that 2 and 3 John and Jude are of less authority than the rest of the scriptural books. It is extraordinary that no action was taken by the Rom. church against such views until after the death of Caietan in 1534. His opinions, together with those being expressed by the Reformers (Luther in particular), led to the fateful decrees of the Council of Trent on the canon in 1546. There was considerable difference of opinion over the classification of the canonical books, but the importance of the Council lies in its final decisions. For the first time, the Bible became an article of faith of the Church, accompanied by an anathema upon all who questioned any part of it. Moreover, the text specified was the old Vul. ed., which was to be regarded as “sacred and canonical.” Clearly, historical criticism played no part in the decisions of this Council, which virtually forbade any further examination of the problems involved. It is worth noting that in a list of books prepared by Sixtus Senensis, whose opinions were representative of the majority opinion at the Council, a kind of deutero-canon is mentioned, comprising Hebrews, the minor Catholic epistles, the Apocalypse, and three separate passages (Mark 16:9-20; Luke 22:43, 44 and John 7:53-8:11). These books, at first only permitted to be read, came at last to be adopted as Scriptures of indisputable authority. The Church alone, according to this view, had the right to pronounce what is canonical.

Luther and the German Reformers.

It has been seen that although questionings arose within the Rom. church, they were silenced by the voice of authority. Martin Luther was in a different position, for he had come to regard the Bible itself as the voice of authority. In a real sense the Reformers generally may be said to have substituted an authoritative Bible for an authoritative Church. This did not mean that the voice of inquiry was silenced. Indeed, Luther’s own approach to the NT canon proves the opposite. He reflects the mood of the age to subject established usage to searching criticism, although the absence of suitable tools for such criticism too often resolved itself into an uncritical approach. With Luther, personal considerations were of utmost importance. Personal conviction, if need be, could and must take precedence over ecclesiastical pronouncements.

The most notable feature of Luther’s approach to the NT canon is his idea of a NT within the NT. This introduces the idea of degrees of canonicity within the collection of sacred books. He seems to have had three parts to his NT: (1) Those books which were the most valuable—John’s gospel and 1 John, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter. These books, he claimed, could teach all that is needful and blessed for the reader to know; (2) Those books which were least esteemed—Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Apocalypse, all four of which he placed at the end of the NT; (3) The remaining books. He considered Hebrews to be by the disciple of an apostle, not by an apostle. It was therefore not placed on an equal footing with the apostolic epistles. Although he called James “a right strawy epistle,” he had some esteem for it and sometimes quoted it. He denied its apostolic authorship on two grounds: (1) Its contradiction of Paul’s doctrine of justification, and (2) the paucity of its references to Christ. Luther explained his concept of apostolicity when expounding the latter point. Even one of the Twelve, such as Peter or one like the Apostle Paul, would be no true apostle if he did not testify of Christ. Even if such men as Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod preached Christ that would be apostolic. Luther’s definition clearly needs more precision than this. It is wholly governed by what he conceives to be the true content of the Gospel. He admitted, on the other hand, that there are many good sayings in James.

Of the other books which he questioned, Jude was considered to be an extract from 2 Peter and could not therefore be placed on an equality with the “capital books.” The Apocalypse was said to be “a dumb prophecy,” but no one is to be hindered if he regards it as a work of the Apostle John.

Although when separating these four books from the rest Luther claimed that in former times they were regarded in a different light, he nevertheless did not rely on a careful examination of external evidence. His method of criticism was mainly subjective.

Another of the German Reformers was Karlstadt, otherwise Andrew Bodenstein, who in 1520 issued a brief book on the Canon of Scripture (De canonicis Scripturis). He would not accept conciliar decisions on the canon, but declared the independent supremacy of Scripture. His NT was classified in three parts according to dignity: (1) the four gospels; (2) the epistles of Paul, 1 Peter and 1 John; and (3) the remaining books. His attitude toward the disputed books followed closely the opinions of Erasmus.

Calvin and the Swiss Reformers.

There is little need to comment on the opinions of Zwingli, for he had little to say about the canon. He appears to have accepted all the books except the Apocalypse of John, which in his view was not a book of the Bible. His contemporary, Oecolampadius, admitted all the books of the NT, but added the rider that “we do not compare the Apocalypse, the Epistles of James and Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John with the rest.” This shows the influence of earlier doubts over these books on the opinions of the Reformers.

It was Calvin among the Swiss Reformers who exercised most influence in the matter of the canon. He was not reticent to state his opinions of the Antilegomena. He had no doubt that Hebrews was an apostolic epistle, but denied the Pauline authorship. He regarded the writer as a disciple of the apostle and claimed that the epistle supported this. He noted differences of method and style as evidence against Paul being the author. He used the same argument for 2 Peter. He failed to find in it the genuine language of Peter and concluded, therefore, that one of his disciples must have written it at Peter’s command. There is no question of Calvin rejecting the epistle, since “the majesty of the Spirit of Christ exhibits itself in every part of the epistle.” There was evidently some conflict in Calvin’s mind over a case where free opinions clashed with apostolic content. When referring to James, he recognized that doubts had existed in the Early Church, and yet he saw no sufficient reason for rejecting it. He acknowledged that all the NT books could not be expected to treat the same topic. In this he is obviously distinguishing his position from that of Luther. Since Jude does not contain anything foreign to the purity of apostolic doctrine, Calvin was prepared to accept it in spite of ancient doubts. He does not mention the remaining disputed books—2 and 3 John and the Apocalypse. The test of canonicity for Calvin was personal rather than historical, although Calvin was not unmindful of the importance of patristic testimony. By the time of Beza’s edition of the NT in 1564, these doubts seem to have left him, for although he mentioned earlier doubts about James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, he overlooked them. He discussed the Apocalypse and said that if he is allowed to conjecture he would suggest John Mark as author.

Evidence from the church confessions.

The chief concern is to indicate the main features in the Reformed Confessions which relate to Scripture. At Basel in 1534, the books are referred to under the title of Holy Biblical Scripture, which is regarded as authoritative in all matters of opinion. In the Helvetic Confession two years later, the Word of God is said to be given by the Holy Spirit and is the sole source of piety and the rule of life. The Belgic Confession (1561-1563) is notable for emphasizing again the Scriptures as that “on which our faith can rest, by which it can be confirmed and established.” This Confession repudiates the idea that the books are regarded as canonical because of Church pronouncements, but asserts that it is because of the witness of the Holy Spirit to one’s conscience.

The Westminster Confession, drawn up in 1643, makes clear the general approach of the Calvinistic churches. Article 1 shows the necessity of Scripture as the means of God’s revelation. Article 2 sets forth the separate books of the OT and NT and then adds, “All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.” Article 3 rejects the Apoc. as being a part of the canon of Scripture. Article 4 states that the authority of Scripture rests not on man but on its author, God. Article 5 concedes that the testimony of the Church may influence men, but the assurance of the truth and divine authority of Scripture comes from the inward work of the Holy Spirit. This confession, which has exerted a powerful influence on the Reformed churches of the western world, brings clearly to the fore the supremacy of Scripture in a way more explicit than anything that can be found in the ancient testimonies. Yet, what is explicit in this confession was implicit in the usage of the Early Church.

The quasi-canonical books.

In the preceding survey there have been some instances of books which certain writers treated as Scripture, but which were never generally so regarded. Such books are few in number. They are worth noting only to demonstrate the remarkable agreement which the churches generally maintained over those books which were to be regarded as of lesser value than the canonical books. The Didache, which circulated under an ascription to the Twelve Apostles, was treated as Scripture by both Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and by others in Egypt during the cent. following them. It gained some esteem elsewhere, as in Syrian Antioch where it was used in the composition of a work known as the Apostolic Constitutions, but there is no evidence that outside Egypt it was treated as canonical.

The Epistle of Barnabas was also more esteemed in Egypt than elsewhere. Clement included it in his commentary on the Catholic Epistles, while Origen used the same term “catholic” of it as he used for 1 Peter and 1 John. Moreover, a cent. later it was still sufficiently regarded to be included at the end of the NT text in Codex Aleph. Elsewhere it does not seem to have gained anything approaching canonical status.

The two letters attributed to Clement must next be noted. As early as a.d. 170 1 Clement was read publicly at Corinth. It was used as valuable by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Clement did not, however, comment on it in his Hypotyposes. It never gained any canonical status. Second Clement was rarely read in the E and was unknown in the W.

It is the Shepherd of Hermas which gained most notice, and was certainly regarded as Scripture by some. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen all used it as Scripture. After his conversion to Montanism, however, Tertullian rejected it because of the idea of postbaptismal reconciliation which it contains. In the Muratorian Canon it was valued for private use but not for public reading. In the time of Cyprian one author in Rome speaks of it as divine Scripture, but apart from this there is no other evidence of it attaining canonical status. Like the Epistle of Barnabas, it found a place at the end of the NT text in Codex Aleph.

The Apocalypse of Peter is in a rather different category, since this book is specifically associated with an apostle. It was commented on by Clement of Alexandria, who evidently placed it on a level with the canonical books. It is mentioned in the Muratorian Canon where it is linked with the Apocalypse of John, but doubts are mentioned concerning it. Although known elsewhere, it does not appear to have been treated as Scripture. It is, moreover, tainted with Docetism.

The only other book which was sufficiently esteemed to qualify as a quasi-canonical book is the Acts of Paul. This was produced in its complete form in the mid-2nd cent. by an Asiatic presbyter who was deposed from office when he admitted the composition. The work was not heterodox. In fact, the author claimed to have written it out of love for Paul. In spite of the action of the Asiatic church against the author, the book was for some time used in the E. Both Clement and Origen respected it. In the Syr. church at one time the Letter to the Corinthians, which is included within the Acts of Paul but which also circulated separately, was regarded as canonical (known as 3 Corinthians).

The evidence shows that there was a fairly clear demarcation between canonical and non-canonical, with only an occasional blurring of the borders. It appears that the Egyptians had a rather freer approach to the canon than did others.

The New Testament Apocrypha.

Little needs to be said about this collection of books, which may be restricted to those which are grouped under the same categories as the canonical books. There were many apocryphal gospels which were attempts to express heretical opinions in canonical forms. An interesting witness to the attitude of the 2nd cent. church toward such books is Serapion, bishop of Antioch, who at first allowed the Gospel of Peter to be read, but later prohibited it when he discovered that it supported the Docetic heresy. This may have been a blameworthy act on Serapion’s part in not making sufficient examination before authorizing its use.

The numerous apocryphal Acts bear testimony to the desire of heretical sects to claim apostolic support for their opinions. It was much easier to produce pseudo-Acts than pseudo-epistles. Of the latter there are extant only two attempts to produce anything approaching imitations of Paul’s epistles—3 Corinthians mentioned above, and the Epistle to the Laodiceans, of which the existence of at least two are known, one referred to in the Muratorian Canon and the other which gained a period of canonicity in some of the churches of the Middle Ages. This latter was an unimaginative production based almost wholly on extracts from the epistle to the Philippians.

Of the Apocalypses the only notable rival to the Apocalypse of John was the Apocalypse of Peter (referred to in the preceding section). It is surprising that there were not more of these pseudo-apocalypses which gained support, since the form lent itself to imaginative and speculative elements.

In spite of the great number of these pseudo-NT books there was never a collection of them to form a kind of counterpart to the OT Apoc. None but the heretical sects placed them on a par with canonical books (with the exception of 3 Corinthians in the Syr. church). A comparison between these apocryphal books and the canonical ones is sufficient to show why. The inferiority and lack of true apostolicity of the former is self-evident. The mere ascription of the books to apostles could not hide this fundamental distinction, and this shows why the orthodox churches were not misled.

The canon and modern criticism.

During the last cent. and a half interest in the NT has centered on the historical and literary problems and little serious attention has been given to the question of the canon. Many of the older established positions have been challenged. Some books which have not only been traditionally regarded as apostolic, but which claim themselves to be, have been challenged and regarded as sub-apostolic. The gospels have been analyzed and dissected to such an extent among some schools of critical inquiry that it is questionable what apostolic content remains. There has been no attempt to revise either the content of, or the basis for, the NT canon. Many schools of thought reject the doctrine of inspiration and authority of the Scriptures as formulated by the Reformed churches. What has replaced it has inevitably affected the approach to the canon. According to these opinions, it is no longer meaningful to regard the canon as a collection of books preserving the authentic apostolic doctrine. Rather must the canon be regarded as a quarry from which ideas may be culled, but which do not possess in themselves an inherent authority. Some books have virtually fallen out of the canon through neglect (e.g., 2 Peter and Jude). If the notion of a canon is to have continued meaning, it is essential for modern criticism to come to grips with the canonical implications of its own conclusions. Those who deny apostolic authorship to those books which make specific apostolic claims are faced with the dilemma of excluding them from the canon or else redefining the basis of the canon. If it is to consist of books which preserve a secondary re-interpretation of apostolic doctrine, the canon cannot fail to lose its authority as an authentic representation of the teaching of Christ and His apostles. It would be better to have a truncated canon rather than a canon on which the Christian believer cannot rely. The Early Church did not exercise such vigilance over its canon for no purpose. There is no doubt that the books accepted were regarded as a priceless heritage and the modern church dare not jeopardize that heritage without the strongest evidence that those who first regarded these books as authoritative were mistaken.


B. F. Westcott, An Introduction to the History of the NT Canon, 4th ed. (1875); Th. Zahn, Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons (1888-1892); V. H. Stanton, “NT Canon” and “Canon,” HDB III (1900); Oxford Society, The NT in the Apostolic Fathers (1905); J. Leipoldt, Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons (1907-1908); C. R. Gregory, Canon and Text of the NT (1924); M. R. James, The Apocryphal NT (1924); A. von Harnack, The Origin of the NT (Eng. tr. 1925); E. J. Goodspeed, The Formation of the NT (1926); W. Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (1934); J. Knox, Marcion and the NT (1942); J. N. Sanders, The Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (1943); E. C. Blackman, Marcion and his Influence (1948); A. H. McNeile, Introduction to the Study of the NT, 2nd ed. (1953); A. Souter, The Text and Canon of the NT, 2nd ed. (1954); C. L. Mitton, The Formation of the Pauline Corpus (1955); A. Wikenhauser, NT Introduction, Eng. tr. (1958); K. Aland, The Problem of the NT Canon (1962); J. N. Birdsall, “Canon of the NT,” NBD (1962); C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the NT (1962); E. Hennecke, NT Apocrypha, Eng. tr. by R. McL. Wilson, I (1963).