Ask a Scholar

The New Testament Canon by Lee Martin McDonald

Q. When did the early Christians consider the New Testament or rather, some books of the New Testament, scripture?

A. The New Testament (NT) writings were read in churches early on (Col 4:16), but were not generally called "scripture" until the end of the second century C.E., despite being used that way earlier. Ancient texts always functioned as scripture before they were called scripture. Only one New Testament author makes the claim that what he wrote was equivalent to sacred scripture (Rev 22:18-19; compare with Deut 4:2).

By the middle of the second century C.E., Justin Martyr (1 Apology 64-67) noted that the Gospels were read alongside of and occasionally instead of the "prophets" (Old Testament books). When New Testament writings were read in church worship, or served as an authority in matters of faith and conduct this was a first step in acknowledging the sacredness of the NT writings. The first writings acknowledged as scripture included the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John and some Pauline letters. Not all New Testament writings were called scripture at the same time or place. Irenaeus of Lyon was among the first to make explicit statements about the scriptural status of the canonical Gospels; however several others took much longer to be recognized, notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Initially, early Christians also appear to have accepted other Christian writings as scripture. Some of the most popular Christian writings not included in the canon include Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and others that were read in churches well into the fourth and fifth centuries and in some cases even later.

Finally, decisions made about the sacredness of the church's scriptures did not take place universally at the same time or location. One church father's decision does not mean that all church leaders came to the same conclusions at the same time. By the fourth century C.E., most Christians had accepted most of the NT writings, but canon lists varied well into the eighth or ninth centuries.

Lee Martin McDonald, "New Testament Canon", n.p. [cited 18 Aug 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/new-testament-canon

Contributors

Lee Martin McDonald

Lee Martin McDonald
President Emeritus, Acadia Divinity College

Lee Martin McDonald is President Emeritus of Acadia Divinity College, Acadia University, Nova Scotia.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

A very early composite Christian text about church rules and Christian discipline.

A detailed letter, written in formal prose. Most of the New Testament books beyond the gospels are epistles (letters written to early Christians).

An early (second century) Christian leader and theologian whose writings attacked heresies like gnosticism.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

An early Christian allegory from the first or second century C.E. that depicts visions appearing to a former slave.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Col 4:16

16And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.

Rev 22:18-19

18I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book;19if ... View more

Deut 4:2

2You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you ... View more

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