The New Testament Canon

The New Testament Canon


I.         On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, Jesus promised his troubled disciples that he would send a helper - John 14:16

            A.        The helper would be the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth - John 14:17

            B.        His purpose in coming would be to teach and to remind the disciples of all the things Jesus had said - John 14:26

            C.        The Spirit would teach the disciples, who were later known as the apostles, all truth - John 16:13-15

                        1.         This, Peter said, was fulfilled - II Peter 1:3

                        2.         The apostles taught as the Spirit instructed - I Corinthians 2:10-13

                        3.         All glory for that instruction belonged to God - II Corinthians 4:5-7

            D.        What is being described here is inspiration equal to the inspiration of the prophets in the Old Testament.

II.        Apostleship then was important to the establishment of the church - Ephesians 2:19-22

            A.        The apostles’ words had the authority of God

                        1.         The early church received the apostles’ teachings as the word of God - I Thessalonians 2:13

                        2.         Paul’s writings were the commandments of God - I Corinthians 14:37

                        3.         They were taught in all the churches - I Corinthians 4:17

            B.        This is why Paul spent time defending his apostleship to the Corinthians

                        1.         The Corinthian church sought proof that Christ spoke through Paul - II Corinthians 13:3

                        2.         Paul was not inferior to any of the other apostles - II Corinthians 11:5-6

                        3.         The signs that accompanied Paul showed him to be a full apostle - II Corinthians 12:11-12

                        4.         Paul had the authority of Christ behind him - II Corinthians 13:10

            C.        The church as expected to follow the teachings of the apostles

                        1.         II Corinthians 11:2 - Hold firmly to the traditions, just as they were delivered.

                        2.         The teachings were not to be changed - Galatians 1:8-10

                        3.         II Thessalonians 2:15 - Hold firm in them whether they came directly or by letter.

                        4.         Those not obedient to the letters were to be withdrawn from - II Thessalonians 3:14

            D.        The writings of the apostles were considered Scripture (the inspired writings of God)

                        1.         II Peter 3:1-2 - Equated to the prophets of the Old Testament.

                        2.         II Peter 3:15-16 - Peter called Paul’s writings Scripture

                        3.         I Timothy 5:18 - Paul quotes Scripture

                                    a.         The first is Deuteronomy 25:4

                                    b.         The second is Luke 10:7

                        4.         Jude 17-18 - Quotes II Peter 3:3 as authoritative because it came from the apostles.

                                    a.         Note: I find this particularly fascinating because many wish to place II Peter as the last New Testament book written, but Jude quotes it!

            E.        This is why nine of Paul’s thirteen letters start out with his claim of apostleship. It is what made his writings authoritative.

III.       The early church only accepted writings associated with the apostles.

            A.        False apostles were already out in the world sending false letters - II Thessalonians 2:2

            B.        Paul placed a distinguishing mark in his letters - II Thessalonians 3:17

            C.        What led the church to accept certain writings was their knowledge that it came from an apostle.

                        1.         Since the churches were spread, some letters took longer to be recognized than others.

                        2.         The group initially receiving the letter was quick to recognize the source. Others gaining copies of the original had to check the source carefully.

            D.        If we understand and accept that books entered the canon because an apostle was associated with the writing of the book, then we have the answer for most of our books.

                        1.         Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew.

                        2.         John wrote John, I John, II John, III John and Revelation.

                        3.         Paul wrote thirteen letters: Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians and II Thessalonians are all letters to various churches in different cities or regions. I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus are personal letters to two preachers who often worked with Paul. Philemon is a personal letter to member of the church and friend of Paul concerning a run away slave.

                        4.         Peter wrote I Peter and II Peter.

                        5.         This only leaves Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James, and Jude to closely examine why they were accepted.

            E.        Papias (about AD 130, but probably earlier). He was alive when John was still alive.

                        1.         “Matthew composed the oracles in Hebrew, and each one interpreted them as he was able.”

                                    a.         This quote can be translated as in the Hebrew dialect or style of writing.

                        2.         “This also the Elder [John] used to say. Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately all that he remembered, though he did not [record] in order that which was either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him; but subsequently, as I said, [attached himself to] Peter, who used to frame his teaching to meet the [immediate] wants [of his hearers], and not as making a connected narrative of the Lord’s discourses. So Mark committed no error as he wrote down some particulars just as he recalled them to mind. For he took heed to one thing – to omit none of the facts that he heard and to set nothing falsely in [his narrative of] them.”

            F.        Justin Martyr (within 50 years of the apostle John’s death)

                        1.         Justin after quoting Luke’s account of the Lord’s Supper said, “the apostles in the memoirs composed by them which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them.”

                        2.         “The mention of the fact that Christ changed the name of Peter, in his [Peter’s] memoirs, together with his having changed the name of two other brethren who were sons of Zebedee to Boanerges, tended to signify that he was the same through whom the surname Israel was given to Jacob, and Joshua to Hoshea.”

                                    a.         The changing of Peter’s name is only found in the Gospel of Mark which Justin said was Peter’s memoirs.

            G.        Irenaeus (180 - 192 A.D.)

                        1.         “Matthew, among the Hebrews in their own dialect, brought out also a writing of a Gospel while Peter and Paul in Rome were preaching and founding the Church. After their death Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also himself committed to us inscripturated the things being preached by Peter. And Luke, the follower of Paul, the Gospel being preached by that one he put down in a book. Then John, the disciple of the Lord . . . also he gave out the Gospel while staying in Ephesus of Asia.”

            H.        Tertullian was a heretic in the early church, but like most false teachers used the Scriptures to bolster his position

                        1.         “The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage – I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew – whilst that which Mark had published may be affirmed to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the words which disciples publish belong to their masters.”

                        2.         “The evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the Gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with apostles and after apostles; because the preaching of apostles might be open to suspicion of affectation of glory, if there did not accompany it the authority of the masters, which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters.”

                        3.         “The apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men could not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles.”

                        4.         “In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority, for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations the doctrine which they have received from Christ.”

            I.         Note that the phrase “apostolic men” refers to close associates of the apostles who acted as their secretaries. They were similar to Burach’s duties to Jeremiah.

                        1.         This is not unusual.

                        2.         Even though Romans is from Paul, Romans 16:22 shows us that Tertius was the scribe who wrote the words onto paper.

                        3.         Silvanus (Silas) was Peter’s scribe for I Peter - I Peter 5:12

                        4.         In fact from Galatians 6:11 we conclude that Paul rarely did his own writing.

                        5.         From these early Christians we learn that Mark took the various stories told by Peter and placed them in a book as accurately as he could. Peter did not dictate the book directly from start to finish, instead he related stories as his audience had need. Mark collected the stories and put them together, but it appears that he did not complete the task before Peter’s death. However, the book was accepted because all Christians recognized that it was the accurate record of Peter’s stories.

                        6.         In a similar manner, Luke’s writing were accepted because of his close association with Paul.

            J.         If you look at early Christian writings, the debates over the acceptance of a book revolved around whether an Apostle truly wrote the book.

IV.      The Hard Books

            A.        The Book of Jude is quoted some in early Christian writing. But it has always been firmly received, when mentioned, as being Scripture.

                        1.         “Early church works appear to echo its content (compare Didache 2:7 and Jude 22, and greetings within Polcarp's Epistle to the Philippians [108 A.D.] and the Martyrdom of Polycarp are similar to that of Jude). ... Clement of Alexandria (lived circa 150-211/216 A.D.) refers to Jude in his Paedagogus ("Instructor", 3:8), Stromata ("Miscellanies"), and Hypotyposes (a multi-volume commentary on books of Scripture). Likewise, Tertullian (lived circa 155-222 A.D.), in northern Africa, showed Carthage's familiarity with Jude.” [Brent MacDonald, The New Testament books of James and Jude,, 2008].

                        2.         “The Epistle of Jude, indeed, and two belonging to the above-named John – or bearing the name of John – are reckoned among the Catholic epistles.” [Canon Muratorianus, about AD 175]

                        3.         The author is named (Jude 1), but there were multiple Judes in the New Testament

                                    a.         Judas Iscariot

                                    b.         Judas, also known as Thaddaeus, who was brother to (son of?) James the son of Alphaeus - Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:16, Acts 1:13.

                                    c.         Jude, the brother of James, who are half-brothers to Jesus - Matthew 13:55

                        4.         A few early Christian writers refer to the work as being authored by Jude the Apostle. Judas Iscariot died too soon.

                                    a.         In the Jude, the son of Joseph, camp:

                                                (1)       “Jude, who wrote the Catholic Epistle, the brother of the sons of Joseph, and very religious, whilst knowing the near relationship of the Lord, yet did not say that he himself was His brother. But what said he? "Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ," -of Him as Lord; but "the brother of James." For this is true; he was His brother, (the son) of Joseph. [Comments on the Epistle of Jude, Fragments of Clemens Alexandrinus (who lived circa 160-215/220 A.D.)].

                                                (2)       “Then of the New Testament there are the four Gospels only, for the rest have false titles and are mischievous. The Manichaeans also wrote a Gospel according to Thomas, which being tinctured with the fragrance of the evangelic title corrupts the souls of the simple sort. Receive also the Acts of the Twelve Apostles; and in addition to these the seven Catholic Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude; and as a seal upon them all, and the last work of the disciples, the fourteen Epistles of Paul. But let all the rest be put aside in a secondary rank.” [Cyril of Jerusalem, about AD 313-386].

                                    b.         Also noted is that Jude 17-18 could be read that the author isn’t among the apostles. But notice it says “they said to you” and not “they said to us.” This would place Jude among the apostles.

                                    c.         In the Judas, the son of Alphaeus camp:

                                                (1)       “We have now to notice, agreeably to the statements of Scripture, how the opposing powers, or the devil himself, contends with the human race, inciting and instigating men to sin. And in the first place, in the book of Genesis, the serpent is described as having seduced Eve; regarding whom, in the work entitled The Ascension of Moses (a little treatise, of which the Apostle Jude makes mention in his Epistle), the archangel Michael, when disputing with the devil regarding the body of Moses, says that the serpent, being inspired by the devil, was the cause of Adam and Eve's transgression” [Origen 3.2.1, about AD 185-254].

                                                (2)       Tertullian (about AD 155-222), argued for the acceptance of the Book of Enoch based on it being apparently quoted by Jude. “To these considerations is added the fact that Enoch possesses a testimony in the Apostle Jude.” [Tertullian: On the apparel of women, Book 1, Chapter 3].

                        5.         Given the importance of apostleship to the early Christians, it makes sense that we are referring to Jude, the brother of James, the sons of Alphaeus. But it could also be that the Lord’s brother, Jude, was a prophet.

                        6.         Note that Jude calls himself a bond-servant, a phrase favored by the Apostles though not limited to them - Romans 1:1, II Peter 1:1, Revelation 1:1.

            B.        The book of James causes the same problem

                        1.         “A number of writing early church fathers where aware of the book and quote from it in their works. Two of the earliest, in the generation following the apostles, were Clement of Rome (in his first letter to the Corinthians which references James 2:21, 23) and the author of The Shepherd of Hermas (which references James 4:7). Origen, approximately a century later (lived circa 185-254 A.D.), expressly mentions the book in his commentary on John [1.19], and Irenaeus makes reference to a verse from it as well (James 2:23 in Haer. 4.16.2).” [Brent MacDonald, The New Testament books of James and Jude,, 2008].

                        2.         Again James calls himself a bond-servant, which inclines us to an apostle as the author.

                        3.         Yet there are multiple James in the Bible:

                                    a.         There is James, the brother of John, the sons of Zebedee.

                                    b.         There is James, the brother of Jude, the sons of Alphaeus.

                                    c.         There is a James who was half-brother to Jesus.

                        4.         James, the son of Zebedee, was killed in Acts 12:2. When he is mentioned, he is always called either the brother of John or the son of Zebedee. This is because there were two James.

                        5.         James the son of Alphaeus is always called as such up until James the son of Zebedee’s death. Afterwards, he is just called James.

                        6.         It looks like the best candidate is James the son of Alphaeus and the brother of Jude.

                        7.         There is a possibility that it was James, the Lord’s brother, but again it would be based on James being a prophet..

            C.        This leaves us with Hebrews

                        1.         It has been quoted even by very early Christian writers as Scripture.

                        2.         The author is not directly named, though hints appear in the book.

                                    a.         Hebrews 2:3-4 indicates the author was not a direct witness to Jesus’ words on earth. (i.e. the author was not one of the original 12 apostles).

                                    b.         Hebrews 13:23-24 says it was written from Italy by an associate of Timothy.

                                    c.         Hebrews 10:34, 13:19 indicates the author is in prison and hopes to visit soon.

                                    d.         The writer is strongly knowledgeable of the Hebrew religion.

                        3.         Origen

                                    a.         “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of someone who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this Epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the Epistle, in truth, God knows.”

                        4.         Pantaenus (third-hand quote)

                                    a.         “And as the blessed presbyter[Pantaenus] used to say, since the Lord, as being the apostle of the Almighty, was sent to the Hebrews, Paul through his modesty, inasmuch as he was sent to the Gentiles, does not inscribe himself apostle of the Hebrews, both on account of the honor due to the Lord, and because it was a work of supererogation that he addressed an Epistle to the Hebrews also, since he was herald and apostle of the Gentiles.”

                        5.         Clement is quoted saying that the Epistle to the Hebrews is Paul’s,

                                    a.         “And in the Hypotyposes, in a brief summary, he has made abbreviated narratives of all canonical Scripture; and has not passed over the disputed books, - I mean Jude and the rest of the Catholic Epistles and Barnabas, and the so-called Revelation (Apocalypse) of Peter. And he says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is Paul's, and was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke, having carefully translated it, gave it to the Greeks, and hence the same coloring in the expression is discoverable in this Epistle and the Acts; and that the name "Paul an Apostle" was very properly not pre-fixed, for, he says, that writing to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced against him and suspected, he with great wisdom did not repel them in the beginning by putting down his name” [Eusebius: Ecclesiastical History, 6.14.1, AD 325].

                                    b.         This would explain Origen’s misgivings about the differences in phrasing and word choices from Paul’s other works.

                                    c.         One author noted that the word choice in Hebrews does match well with Luke and Acts.

                        6.         Tertullian states that Barnabas was the scribe who wrote the words of Paul down. In fact Tertullian quotes Hebrews 6:4-8 but calls it the Epistle of Barnabas though he says it contained the words of Paul.

                        7.         While the author remains uncertain, it is significant that the only candidate ever offered for the writer of Hebrews is Paul.

V.        When we reach the end, we find that every book of the New Testament is either written by an apostle or by someone closely associated with an apostle who were known to be a prophet. Even the books were we are not certain of the identity of the author today, still can be associated with an apostle.

            A.        The early church accepted writings because of the author. The words had to have originated from an apostle.

            B.        As with the Old Testament, the books in our Bible were not set by some council or historian sitting in judgement of God’s Word.

            C.        Rather, the church accepted writings from the Apostles and later historians recognized what was already known by all Christians.