Canon Development


Dr. John Hoole



For whatever set of reasons, there is a widespread belief out there (whether  on the internet or in popular books) that the New Testament canon was decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD—under the conspiratorial influence of Constantine.  The fact that this claim was made in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code shows how widespread it really is.  Brown did not make up this belief; he simply used it in his book.


The problem with this belief, however, is that it is patently false.  The Council of Nicea had nothing to do with the formation of the New Testament canon.  Nor did Constantine have anything to do with the canon.  Nicea, which is a city in modern Turkey, was concerned with how Christians should articulate their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus.  Thus, it was the birthplace of the Nicean creed.


When people discover that Nicea did not decide the canon, the follow up question is usually,  “Which council did decide the canon?”  Surely we could not have a canon without some sort of authoritative, official act of the church by which it was decided.  Surely we have a canon because some group of men somewhere voted on it. Right?


No, that is not the way a canon of biblical writings was established.  It was not because the Council of Nicea or any other council, that we have 66 books in the Bible.


In our very first lesson of this series on “The Reliability of the Bible,” I showed you a chart of how the Bible came from God to us.  I mentioned that it was not a quick overnight trip.  It actually has spanned several centuries, and the Bible has survived countless attacks along the way.  I want to use that chart to introduce our lesson today.


1.      Communication – The journey of the Bible to us started in the mind of God who  always seeks contact with each person in his creation.   He wants to communicate with us.  He had a message of salvation to give to the people He created, which they could understand only if he would reveal it to them.


2.      Revelation is the result of this communication. God chose to reveals this truth to all mankind  To get that message to the people, God moved and guided chosen men to write special Scriptures breathed out by him.           The ΅breathing out΅ of these truth is called inspiration.


3.      Inspiration and composition – …is the supernatural work of God.  Thirty-nine manuscripts were written mostly in Hebrew, and are of pre-Christian years;  Twenty-seven manuscripts were written mostly in Greek, and came into existence  after Christ.  In each, the Old and New Testaments, portions were written in Aramaic.


But the story of the journey doesn’t end there  Now the question is, “How did people know exactly what writings God had so inspired.”  What books could be called God’s Book?  This is called Canonization.


4.      Canonization


In His own mysterious ways, God gave his people the discernment to distinguish inspired Scripture from the non-inspired writing.  By the influence of the Spirit of God,  the thirty-nine Hebrew books gradually merged into the Old Testament;  Similarly, the twenty-seven Greek books merge into the New Testament.


We will cover the final two steps of this journey in future lessons.  But, let me make a short statement of each now.


5.      Transmission – Hand copies of the original manuscripts are made before they disappear from public circulation.  Then, copies are made of copies in the centuries that follow.


6.      Translation – The Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are translated into many languages of the world.  Each translated copy reaches its final-destination in the hands of a happy owner, to be read and studied.


In discussing the subject of the reliability of the Bible, several questions come to the front.


•  Were there other books that were considered for inclusion in the Bible?


•  Is there evidence showing early acceptance of the four gospels we currently have?  In other words, was it true, as written by Dan Brown in his book, The Da Vinvi Code,” that other Gospels were in place before being replaced by the four gospels we have today.


•  Were some books included, only to later be excluded?  So, what about the claim by Dan Brown that the earlier and original gospels were the Gnostic gospels, and were later replaced by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the 4th century.


The question becomes this:  Is there any evidence that the 4 gospels we have were not only written earlier, but were used as Scripture by the church earlier than the 3rd century?  Additionally, what did the “early apostolic fathers” have to say about the New Testament Canon?


So, how early do we find evidence for the formation of the New Testament Canon?




It comes from the Greek word “KANON.”  The Greek word most likely is from the Hebrew QANEH and the Addadian QANULiterally, it means:


a)      a straight rod or bar;

b)      a measuring rule as a ruler used by masons and carpenters;

c)      a rule or standard for testing straightness.


In the course of time, the terms canon and canonical came to be applied to the list of sacred books belonging to God’s inspired Word.


This Greek word is actually found in the New Testament 5 times.  Let me give you just one example.


Galatians 6:16 NKJV


16     And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.


                            Here KANON is translated “rule.”


Jews and Christians alike have recognized the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament as being inspired.  Evangelical protestants have recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as inspired.  Roman Catholics have a total of seventy-three books because they recognize the Apocrypha as semi-canonical.


So, who decided which books were in and which books were out of the New Testament?  And when was that decided?  If your information is from Dan Brown and his book,The Da Vinci Code, the New Testament Canon was determined in AD 325 at the Council of Nicea.


Dan Brown is wrong for many reasons.  The first indicator of his error would be to show in what is called the Muratorian Fragment.  It is called a fragment, because the beginning of the document is missing.  This is a document written about AD 170, and its importance is that it is the oldest document that list all 27 books of the New Testament.


Another obvious error of Dan Brown is that he does not believe any of the Bible books are inspired by God.  He would chide us: “One day Matthew’s Gospel was just another ordinary biography of Jesus.  “And the next day it became “inspired,” just because some church council canonized it.”


But Brown is missing the point.  Being canonized didn’t make certain books inspired.  Being canonized simply recognized these books as having been God-inspired.  That is a huge difference.


Let me illustrate it.  Let’s say I visit an antique store, buy an old painting, and take it home.  When I go to reframe it, I discover another work of art on the back of it.  In the corner it says, Rembrandt  I take it to an art dealer, an expert, and he does some tests on it.  He then tells me I have a genuine Rembrandt


Here’s my question.  When did my Rembrandt become a Rembrandt?  When Rembrandt painted it, right?  It was a Rembrandt long before that art dealer recognized it as such.  It didn’t take the official recognition to make it a Rembrandt.


Similarly, the church council in 300 – and – something didn’t make the New Testament books they canonized God-inspired.  They were God-inspired when they were written.  All that canonization did was to recognize which books were already accepted as God-inspired.


Let me make a broad-brush statement.  As an antithesis to Brown’s version of the Bible’s history, it is my belief that the first generations of the Christian movement stated loudly in their writing, the biblical nature of their beliefs.


The word “BIBLE” means “book.”  So when I say the early Christians spoke about the biblical nature of their beliefs, I am speaking of a document copies of New Testament books, which they knew were “God-breathed” Word of God.


For instance, let me quote Ignatius from Antioch of Syria.  First, a historical background.  Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, nearing 500,000 people.  This is the city from which Paul begins each of his 3 missionary journeys.  You can read in Acts 13, where Paul and Barnabas are set apart by the prophets and teachers at Antioch for their first trip.  This trip was shorter than the others, and would have lasted from about AD46 to 49.


About that time – AD 50 – a child was born in this city with the name Ignatius.  He is also known by the name THEOPHORUS - meaning “God Bearer.”  He grows to become the leader of the church in Antioch, and because of his testimony and faith in Christ, is taken to Rome for execution.  We don’t know exactly when he died, but we know it was sometime around 107 AD.  In his short life, he writes a number of letters, 7 of them during the long trip from Antioch to Rome, where he loses his life to the hungry lions.  In his writings, he refers to or quotes from 8 of the 27 New Testament books.


A moment ago, I mentioned the biblical nature of the practices and lives of the early church.  By that, I said I was referring to the documented and distributed writings of the apostles.  In other words, they already had copies they could hold and read.  Ignatius, about 10 years after the death of the apostle John, shortly before his own death said, “the teachings of the apostles are known through their writings.”


By stating that, I am not saying that some of the books we have in the New Testament  didn’t have much discussion, and sometimes disagreement.  A few of them took time to be fully accepted by the entire Christian community.  But, again I say, the early generations of Christians believed in a canon uniquely inspired by God Himself.  And, in their minds, this included not only those in the New Testament, but also the entirety of the Old Testament.


Moving to the second century


The New Testament writings come to a close near the end of the first century.  John was the last of the eyewitnesses of Christ.  As we move into the second century, what do we find in the writings of the second generation of Christians?  Do we find evidence of at least the beginning of the development of the New Testament Canon?  We have many writings from those living in the late 1st century to mid-2nd century.  They will help us understand that the development of the New Testament canon was underway.


One of the 7 churches of Revelation was the church at Smyrna.  The leader of this church in the late first and early second centuries was Polycarp.  As I mentioned a moment ago, he was a student of the apostle John. 


As the pastor and overseer of this church, his congregation urged him to flee into the countryside in order to escape the persecution of the Romans and others.  This was in February, 155 AD.  He was hunted down and captured.  He did not resist them, but offered them food and drink, and asked for permission to retire for prayer, which he did for two hours.


As they traveled into the city, the officer in charge urged him to recant.  “What harm can it do to sacrifice to the emperor?”


Polycarp refused. On arrival, he was brought before the proconsul in the amphitheater, who pleaded with him.  “Swear by the genius of Caesar…   Revile Christ.  Polycarp said:  “for 86 years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”  The proconsul persisted: “Swear by the genius of Caesar…I have wild beasts; if you will not change your mind, I will throw you to them…”  “Call them!” Polycarp replied.


“Since you make light of the beasts, I will have you destroyed by fire, unless you change your attitude.”  Polycarp strode to the stake and tells them they need not tie him, because God would give him the grace to stay when the fire was lit.  He prayed, “O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you…I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the number of your martyrs.”  And he dies that day.


Earlier, in about 110 AD, in one of his writings, Polycarp not only refers to all four gospels as Scripture, but he mentions and quotes 18 of the New Testament books.  You cannot quote what does not exist.  These books were in written form and already in great circulation.


Polycarp did not write as much as one of his students which I will mention later.  He did write a letter to the church in Philippi a short time before his death.


I read through this letter again recently.  It is not a long letter.  Although it has 14 chapters, or sections, each has only a few statements or verses.  In chapter 12, he makes a couple of noteworthy statements.


His first statement in this section is:  “For I am confident that you are well versed in the Scriptures, and from you nothing is hid:…”  That tells me he knew enough about the church at Philippi, located in a different country, to know they had received and were well versed in the “Scriptures” (plural).  That means they had at least parts of the written Word of God and had it in their possession for enough time to become well-versed in it.


He also makes this statement later in chapter 12.  “…as it is said in these Scriptures,…”  When you look through this entire letter, you find quotes only from what we call the New Testament.

That is not because He didn’t believe in the Old.  But it confirms that he believed the books from which he quoted were Scripture.  In this letter he quotes from or alludes to: Matthew, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy and 1 Peter.  For Polycarp, these writings were the Word of God.


Let’s look again at the timeline.  In addition to what we have already said about the timeline, let me add that we had Scriptural “eyewitness accounts,” spoken and written from 45 to about 95 AD.  The early apostolic fathers, who lived between AD 80 and AD 150 used the material of our New Testament as “authentic apostolic SCRIPTURES.”


Clement of Rome, in about AD 95, writes a letter from Rome to the church in Corinth.  It is a fairly lengthy letter, and he uses quotes or makes allusions to Matthew, Luke, Hebrews, Romans and Corinthians.


And since Clement’s letter is addressed by the entire church at Rome to the church in Corinth, it can be assumed that both of these audiences knew these writings.  That means these books were widely circulated before AD 90.


Polycarp had a spiritual son named Irenaeus.  Like Polycarp had sat at the feet of the apostle John, Polycarp passes on to this young man what he had learned from John.  Irenaeus becomes a prolific writer during the middle to end of the second century.  He was born in 115 AD and died in 202.


Irenaeus quotes extensively from the four gospels.  In fact, in all his writings, he references 25 of the 27 New Testament books we have today.  The only books he does not reference are Philemon and 3rd John, both of which are small, one chapter books.


About 180 AD, he writes a book called “Adversus Haereses” -  Against Heresies.  The full subtitle is:  Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called  This is a voluminous set of 5 books, each having between 31 and 41 chapters.


I ask you a question:  How does one write so voluminously about heresies unless he has some canon – measuring rod – against which to measure all else as to whether it be true or false.


Earlier I said that the early Christians spoke about the biblical nature of their beliefs.  And by that I they meant they had written documents, accepted as Scripture.  Let me make one more quote by Irenaeus.


This comes from the first of 5 volumes called “Against Heresies,” chapter 3.  “We have learned from none others the plan of salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us IN THE SCRIPTURES, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”


He uses the very writings that are rejected by the Gnostics.  In fact, some of the heresies Irenaeus writes against are the false teachings of some of the earliest Gnostic writers.  Their writings were beginning to show up near the mid to late-second century.




He takes them to task because they have left the “writings of the evangelists and apostles,” but they instead derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions”. – from Paragraph 6  This means that a body of written truth existed prior to the Gnostics, which they had taken and perversely twisted in their interpretation of it.


Two versions of Christianity did not develop simultaneously alongside each other as The Da Vinci Code maintains.  That would mean the church was born in total confusion with no clear earth-changing message.  Nor were the Gnostic gospels written and accepted first and later replaced by Constantine.


Common sense demands that there was first orthodoxy, .cemented by widely accepted written texts produced by the first generation of believers.  Then came the deviant version followed by its own set of writings.


A written canon existed at the very beginning of the Christian faith.  In fact, the early church already possessed the Canon of the Old Testament.  Romans 3:2 tells us the Jews we entrusted with the oracles of God.  The Jews were the custodians of the only Scripture they had when Christ was here.  This fits what we know about the Jews and the Old Testament.  They have always been a people of one book who have guarded it with care.  From the time of Ezra and even before, there were priests, and later scribes co sopherim who were given the responsibility to dopy and meticulously care for the sacred text.


And as they wrote the New Testament, they were consciously writing, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, the conclusion to the Canon – the fulfillment of the Old Testament.  The next generation of Christians received the New Testament this way.


Here is another example of the fact that the canon of the New Testament existed well prior to the time of Constantine.  The early Apostolic Fathers of the church led the church during the second and third centuries.  If all 5,366 manuscripts of the New Testament were suddenly destroyed, it would still be possible to reconstruct the entire New Testament with quote from the writings of these apostolic fathers, with the exception of between 15 and 20 verses.


Up to now, what I have tried to present is evidence of early acceptance of the majority of the New Testament books.  This was especially so with regard to the four Gospels found in our current Bible.  And Brown’s assertion that the Council of Nicea was held in 325 to determine which books should be included is definitely without merit or evidence.


In actuality, the books of the Bible were inspired when they were written.  They were already canonical and possessed authority as part of God’s Word.  The responsibility of the church was simply to attest to the fact of their inspiration.


Criteria for inclusion in the Canon


Some of this section was gleaned from Lee Strobel’s book, The Case For Christ.  The book is also a very excellent source for information on the resurrection of Christ.


Did the early church use some process for evaluating what should be included or excluded from the Canon?  What was the criteria for determining which books were authoritative and included in the New Testament?


There was no group of church leaders that set down and developed a set of requirements for inclusion in the canon, and then examined hundreds of documents to see what should and should not be included.  It really wasn’t that simple – and I am glad it wasn’t.




Basically, the early church had five ways to measure a document.


1.  Apostolic or Prophetic authority


2.  Close associate of an apostle

3.  Consistency with the already accepted “rule of faith.”

4.  Confirmed by Christ

5.  Acceptance and usage by the church at large in its earliest days.

1.  Apostolic and Prophetic Authority


Let’s first look at the Old Testament.  It is difficult to portray exactly how the Old Testament books were brought together as the Word of God.  But to use the same criteria for the Old as we do for the New, I think it will help us.


There probably was an authorship test.  The prophets spoke for God in the Old Testament.  Moses, David, Isaiah and others were considered prophets of one sort or another.  Why or How?  Because God put His Word in their mouth.


I love the picturesque way that this happened in the life of Ezekiel.  God appeared to Ezekiel in a vision, handed him a scroll, and told him to eat it.  Let’s read in in Ezekiel 3.


Ezekiel 3:2-4 NKJV


2       So I opened my mouth, and He caused me to eat that scroll.

3       And He said to me, "Son of man, feed your belly, and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you." So I ate, and it was in my mouth like honey in sweetness.

4       Then He said to me: "Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them.


The Old Testament prophets were marked by God’s words.  I will say more about the Old Testament as we later get to another qualification.,


Now, let’s turn to the New Testament.  The books must have apostolic authority.  That is, were they written by apostles themselves?


Ephesians 2:20 (NKJV) speaks of the body of Christ as……


20     having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 


Many of the books written by an apostle begin with statements like:  “Paul, an apostle by the will of God”  (Ephesians 1:1)“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”  (1 Peter 1:1)This indicates their authority.  We also have statements like this from the apostle Paul about James.   But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord's brother. (Galatians 1:19).


We know that Dan Brown, in his book, The Da Vinci Code,” states that it was his belief the four gospels we have today, were not the original gospels in the Bible.  How early do we have a record of the gospels being considered holy Scripture?


Let’s first look at 1 Timothy 5:17-18. NKJV


17     Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.

18     For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer is worthy of his wages."


Notice that verse 18 is quoting Scripture.  In fact, there are actually two quotes in that verse.  The interesting thing is that one quote is from the Old Testament and one from the New.  But, here,  both are called “Scripture” by the apostle Paul.


As you look to interpret these verses, keep in mind that the first word in verse 18, - the word “FOR” – is used as a conjunction, which ties these two verses together.


The first quote is taken from Deuteronomy 25:4.  Simply stated, let the ox eat while he is working out the grain.  Paul is making this with reference to how Pastors and church leaders should be treated.  To paraphrase, he tells the church to make sure the pastor is able to eat, while he is preparing spiritual food for them.  The second quote is taken from Luke 10:7, which is essentially saying the same thing, almost word-for-word..


But, beside the message of these quotes, what Paul has done here is put the writings of Luke’s gospel on par with the Old Testament Scripture.  As I mentioned earlier, Paul is the one New Testament writer who would know if there were other gospels than the four we find in our Bible.  And here he calls one of those four – Luke – “scripture.”


What else does this tell us about the gospel of Luke?  This quote by Paul also means that the gospel of Luke must have been written and in circulation prior to Paul’s writing of 1st Timothy.  So if all Paul’s writings occurred prior to 64 AD, so must the gospel of Luke be even earlier.


What’s amazing about these New Testament authors is that early on their books were recognized as being on par with the Old Testament Scriptures.  Look at what Peter says about the letters written by the apostle Paul.


2 Peter 3:15-16 NKJV


15     and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation — as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you,

16     as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.


Did you catch that last phrase?  Peter likens Paul’s letters to Old Testament Scripture.  That is more than a passing compliment.  That is an incredible claim.  Peter has claimed Scripture status for the writings of Paul.


The Bible has not been placed in some philosophical systems of thought.  It is not based on the mere traditions of people, which change from culture to culture.  Many of the books of the Bible are able to be accepted by the fact that they are written by a recognized prophet or apostle – like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Moses, Paul or Peter.  So, there are a lot of books that are pretty clear cut because of its author.


Which books are now covered by the first criteria – Having Apostolic Authority.  This would include the following books: Matthew, John, Romans, ½ Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, ½ Thes-salonians, ½ Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, ½ Peter, 1/2/3 John, Revelation.  22 of the 27 New Testament books are covered by the “Apostolic Authorship Test.”


2.  Close relationship with an apostle


This and the previous requirement does not cover every book of the New Testament.  In fact, there are some books for which we simply do not know with certainty who the author is.  Hebrews is one book that took a little longer for the church to recognize;  But, I am not talking about hundreds of years for its recognition.  By a number of other criteria (which we will come to), it is clear that Hebrews is inspired; it belongs in the canon.


The books under scrutiny here are those written by men having a close association with a recognized apostle, who obviously learned from the apostle.  Therefore, the book is recognized really as under his supervision or teaching or instruction.


The clearest case of this would be the books of Mark, Luke and Acts.  They comprise a lot of the New Testament in terms of total pages.  That is a big volume of our New Testament that is not written by an apostle.


John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, had a very close relationship with the apostle Peter.     In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter describes Mark as a son.  And we know that the Physician, Luke, traveled with the apostle Paul on his travels.  He writes the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.  See what Luke writes about his credentials in the introduction of his Gospel.


Luke 1:1-2 NKJV


1       Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us,

2       just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us,


Notice that Luke is basing his biography of Jesus on eyewitness accounts.  In fact, he says eyewitnesses – plural eyewitnesses.  Have you ever wondered which eyewitnesses from whom he may have garnered information about the Lord.  I wonder if he talked with Mary, the Lord’s mother.


How many books have we now accounted for in the New Testament?  We have all but two: Hebrews and Jude.


3.  Consistency with the already accepted “rule of faith.”


I find it somewhat telling that in critiquing early Christianity, Dan Brown, in his book, The Da Vinci Code, barely makes a mention of the Old Testament.  One of the amazing things about this book is that it completely cuts Jesus off from His Jewish roots.  If you were getting all your information about Jesus from this book, you wouldn’t know that He is Jewish, except for his bloodline story.


For me, this is a huge omission.  The writers of the New Testament hailed the Old as uniquely and divinely inspired written authority.  Jesus said, in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [He is referring to the Old Testament Scripture]…but to fulfill them.”


The very first day of the church – on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 – it is marked by a public sermon explaining the Old Testament Scriptures.  The Old Testament was the authoritative source of all they taught at the beginning.  Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, commended the people who lived in the town of Berea because they scrupulously examined the Old Testament to see if Paul’s message could be believed  (Acts 17:11).


The inspired Old Testament texts are cited hundreds of times all over the New Testament.  As an example, there are 85 quotations or allusions from the Old Testament in the Book of Hebrews alone.  In the Book of Revelation, there are 245.


Every Old Testament Book except the book of Ruth is quoted in the New Testament.  It quotes nothing from the Apocrypha.  Christ Himself quotes from 22 of the Old Testament books.  And there are well over 300 Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in Christ.


Paul emphasizes the importance of the Old Testament in Romans 10:4, where he says Christ is the end goal, the final installment, of the Old Testament.


         Romans 10:4 NKJV


4       For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.


To try to develop a New Testament canon that does not consider the Old Testament canon is at best spurious.


Though Jesus did not write anything, He made sure there would be those, trained by Him, who would bring His message to the world.  As mentioned earlier, Luke mentions the importance of eyewitnesses to what Christ said and did, when he gives an introduction to his gospel (Luke 1:2).


Jesus also said that whatever the apostles allowed or disallowed would be allowed or disallowed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).


These apostles who spent more than 3 years nearly continuously with Jesus, were given the keys of authority in the kingdom of heaven.  It is the writings of these apostles that Brown wishes to eliminate, and yet, it is the foundation of these apostles upon which the church is built (Eph. 2:20).  That means they were part of the very foundation of the Church.


This test is that the document must be congruent with what was known to be the teaching of Jesus and His apostles.  And it must not contradict what was already accepted as Scripture – the Old Testament.  Nor could it contradict the writing of the apostles.


This is an area where the Gnostic gospels are riddled with problems.  Much of their teaching contradicts what the Old Testament taught, as well as the early eye-witness writings of the apostles.


This is where Hebrews shines, in terms of the Church's acceptance of it.  Hebrews not only agrees with, but helps explain and bring to greater clarity, what has been taught in the Old Covenant (Old Testament).


4.  Confirmed by Christ


The Christian Church has had no difficulty accepting the 39 books of the Old Testament because of what Jesus said in Luke 24:24-27,44.


Christ taught his disciples that the entire Old Testament taught about Him (Luke 24:27).


Luke 24:27 NKJV


27     And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.


A few verses later, in Luke 24:44 (NKJV), He adds:


44     Then He said to them, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me."


You will recall this passage is when Jesus met the two on the road to Emmaus and was talking with them.  What He says is clearly a reference to the Old Testament that was used and accepted in the days of Jesus.  And it mentioned the three sections of the Old Testament, showing that Christ approved of all 39 books.


5.  Acceptance and usage by the church at large in its earliest days.


During the time of oral transmission of the gospel, that is the early preaching of the close followers of Christ, as well as the early writings of the Books of the Bible, early acceptance and usage was key.


Ultimately, what happened was that these letters circulated and more and more groups of Christian people were edified by these writings and came to witness together that these writings were from God.  The Church used these writings and was deeply edified by them.  They were believed over time that they were from God and inspired by Him.


The Book had to be accepted in churches throughout the known world.  In other words, it couldn’t be accepted only by one group of believers.  Neither was a book excluded because it was not accepted by one group of believers.  These requirements specifically prevented canon manipulation by any single group.


The spread of the gospel was very rapid during the first 50 years of the church.     Essentially it reached all parts of the Roman Empire very quickly.  Early acceptance and usage in one area was important when taken to a new area.


When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, not only did the Jews escape to other countries.  The early Christians did as well.


With regard to the spread of the gospel, as Christians moved, they would take with them what was already accepted by the Christian community they were leaving.  Early acceptance and usage was key in what was included in the Canon.


18 of the 27 books in the New Testament were accepted almost immediately.  The remaining 9 are the last 9 books in our New Testament – from Hebrews through Revelation.  Very soon, however, 1 Peter and 1 John garnered acceptance, leaving 7.


Now, let me ask you a question.




I have many theologian writers that I highly respect.  One is Dr. James Garlow.  His doctorate is in historical theology.  He makes a comment in one of his books: “Even if the New Testament had included only these writings (the first 20), every essential doctrine of the Christian faith would remain intact.”


If that is the case, why, then, would we need the remaining 7 books?  They add more instructions to help us live the Christian life more effectively.  They also added greater clarity to the doctrines we hold.


After this, it didn’t take long either for Hebrews and James to be accepted.  Hebrews makes mention of Timothy in Hebrews 13:23, and was accepted because of his connection to the apostle Paul.  James was accepted because, a) he was the Lord’s brother, therefore an eyewitness, and b) he is called an apostle in Galatians 1:19.


Would you like to know some books that were examined for inclusion, but excluded in the end?  Let me first say that the Gnostic gospels were never considered for inclusion, because they did not meet any of the 5-part criteria.


Now, while I have given you a five-part criteria for inclusion of a book in the Canon, it would be incorrect to say they were applied in a mechanical fashion.


There was not a church council – or even several church councils, where they passed judgment on hundreds of books, some of which passed inspection, while others did not make the grade.  These documents did not derive their authority from being selected.       Rather, each was authoritative before anyone gathered them together.  The early church merely listened and sensed that these were authoritative.


Let me try to explain that by way of an illustration.  For someone now to declare that the canon of 27 books in the New Testament emerged only after one or many councils made such a pronouncement, is like saying, “Let’s get several academies of musicians to make a pronouncement that the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, and Handel are good.”     I would say, “Thanks for nothing! We already knew that before the pronouncement was made.”  The same is true for the canon.  They knew this was the Word of God without any needed pronouncement.


I borrow from Arthur Darby Nock what he used to say to his students at Harvard.  “The most traveled roads in Europe are the best roads; that’s why they’re so heavily traveled.”  These books were included in the canon because of continuous use and acceptance as God’s Word.


I like the way the British theologian, William Barclay, put it.  “It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them from doing so.”


If you were to read these other gospels and documents, which I have done, I think you would find them quite dull and trivial.  They don’t lead you to a Christ who can save.  They never speak about God, the Father.


As we have already established in earlier lessons, they were written much later than the four Gospels we have in our Bible.  Their timing would be from late-second century through the 4th century, with only a few that continued into possibly the sixth century.


On the other hand, the four gospels in our New Testament were readily and quickly accepted with remarkable unanimity as being authentic in the story they told.


Again, the canon was not the result of a series of contests involving church politics.  The Canon is rather the separation that came about because of the intuitive and godly insight of Christian believers.


They could really hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John.  They could only hear it in a muffled and distorted way in the Gospel of Thomas, where it is mixed with all sorts of other things.


Compared with the careful, sober, precise, eyewitness quality of Matthew, Mark, Luke and these other works truly deserve the description they received from Eusebius, the early church historian – “Totally absurd and impious.”


Let’s review what we have learned.


         1.      The 4 New Testament Gospels were written and copied in the first century.


         2.      The Gnostic gospels were written late 2nd century at the earliest.


         3.      These 4 N.T. Gospels are each an eyewitness account of the life of Jesus.


         4.      The Canon of the New Testament began its formation before the end of the first century.


         5.      The New Testament has a very strong linkage with the Old Testament.


6.      From the very beginning, believers were willing to die for their faith in Christ and for the Word of Christ.


7.      There was a 5-part criteria required for inclusion in the Canon.


Let me make some personal notes.  The deep analysis and study of the formation of the canon of the Bible, has increased the basis of my own faith in their reliability.  For most of my life I have approached my study time with lots of questions.  And as I have dug into the text, I know with greater confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed.  Very well placed.