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 Development of the New Testament Canon

John Hoole July 23, 2006

Criteria for inclusion in the Canon

Portion 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 three ways to measure a document.

1. Apostolic authority

2. Consistency with the already accepted "rule of faith."

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

Apostolic Authority

The books must have apostolic authority. That is, they must have been written either by apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses, or by early followers of apostles.

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.

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.

Consistency with the already accepted "rule of faith."

The means that the document must be congruent with what was known to be the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. 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.

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. 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 only 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."

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 3-part criteria.

Let me give you a list of books that were considered for inclusion, but in the end excluded. Then I explain what they are and give you the reason they were left out.

1. Didache

2. The Epistle of Barnabas

3. Shepherd of Hermas

4. Diatessaron

5. The Gospel of the Hebrews

6. The Apocalypse of Peter

The Didache

The word "didache" means "teaching". This book was an early Christian manual, written in the late first century, that was meant to represent the teachings of the 12 apostles. Although it is total orthodox in its teachings, it was most likely excluded because:

a. It could not be tied to an apostle.

b. It didn't teach anything new.

One thing I would like to add is that the Didache refers 3 times to Christ as the Son of God - twice in chapter 9 and once in chapter 10. This disproves Dan Brown, who says the church didn't accept Christ as the Son of God until the 4th century.

The Epistle of Barnabas

This is a late 1st - early 2nd century writing. Some early Christians believed Barnabas, the companion of Paul, was its author. That was never established.

This book was excluded for two reasons:

1. It contains a prophecy stating that the Romans, who destroyed the temple, would also rebuild it in their lifetime. That turned out to be a false prophecy because it was NOT rebuilt.

2. It also contains a persistent anti-Jewish tone to it.

Shepherd of Hermas

This book was written around 140-150 AD. Though it is completely orthodox in its teachings, it could not be linked to an apostle or eyewitness.


The is a Greek term meaning "by means of four." It was a "harmony of the gospels," prepared sometime around 160-175 AD, by Tatian, a Syrian believer. It is a side-by-side comparison of the 4 gospels. It was probably excluded because it did add anything not already in the gospels. What it does tell us is that by this time, Tatian believed these 4 were the only gospels.

The Gospel of the Hebrews

This is a writing from the first century. It was referred to in a number of early writings, but a copy of it has never been found. Some believe this is actually the Book of Matthew, and that it was originally written in Hebrew. It was excluded because it was never found.

The Acts of Paul

This book was written in the mid-2nd century. According to Tertullian, who became a Christian near the end of the 2nd century, wrote that a church leader in Asia Minor admitted authoring the book in 160 AD.

The Apocalypse of Peter

It was excluded for two reasons.

1. It was written about 135 AD, so wasn't actually written by Peter, who died in 66 AD.

2. It could not be connected to an apostolic eyewitness.

3-part criteria, continued

Now, while I have given you a three-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. It wasn't that simple and I am glad that it wasn't. 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 like the way the British theologian, William Barclay, put 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 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 John, 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 thus far with reference to the New Testament Canon.

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 3-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 place.

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