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New Testament |
Countdown to the twenty-seven

New Testament is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 90, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

As the New Testament evolved, James, Hebrews and Revelation were challenged, but what ultimately selected all the books was the usage of Christian worshipers

New Testament - Countdown to the twenty-seven

New Testament - Countdown to the twenty-seven
The Codex Vaticanus is one of the oldest editions of the complete Bible as it was known in the early fourth century.

In the year 303, the question of which Christian writings would go into the New Testament took on a sudden urgency. Indeed, for many of the faithful it became a matter of life and death. An imperial decree ordered them to surrender their sacred texts to authorities so they could be burned.

Those Christians willing to comply with such a demand, and risk the contempt of the Christian community, could simply give up every suspect work in their possession. (The English word “traitors” comes to us from a Latin word, traditores, which meant “handers-over.”) But what of those who wished to evade the edict but could not credibly deny that they owned banned books? For example, what if they were readers in their church? Could they satisfy the book-burners and still maintain their Christian reverence by turning over, say, a work of secondary importance, such as The Shepherd of Hermas, or the Letter of Barnabas, without being labeled as apostate? Rarely has there been such a practical need to distinguish the sacred from the merely religious.

The book-burning of 303 was only one of many events in the early history of Christianity that nudged believers toward adoption of a canon of Scripture–a catalog or list of writings acceptable for use in worship. A previous volume in this series, A Pinch of Incense, describes the bewildering array of works that vied for Christians’ attention by the late second century–more than fifty gospels alone, including five documents attributed to the apostle Thomas. Yet by the end of the fourth century, the effort to prune this profusion of writings down to the twenty-seven that came to comprise the New Testament would essentially be complete.

Yet the idea of a New Testament as we conceive of it today simply did not exist in the early decades after Jesus’ Crucifixion. Not every book that eventually appeared in the New Testament had necessarily even been written by the end of the first century, or so some historians maintain. And once the notion of a single corpus of texts did begin to take hold, Christians naturally examined the writings in their possession to cull all but those that represented the genuine apostolic tradition and the authentic teachings of Christ. That process, a messy one, would take time.

Paul’s letters were almost certainly collected and considered as a group some time within the first century. By the end of the second century, they were being copied and circulated as a single set. Christians were also quick to recognize the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as a related body of uniquely sacred writing. The Fourth Gospel, John’s, the last to be written, was the only one to spark resistance in some quarters–in part because of its popularity among the gnostics. Yet skepticism toward John never really took hold, either. By the mid-second century, for example, when Tatian decided to harmonize the Gospels into a single hybrid known as the Diatessaron, he chose the work of all four evangelists. Not long afterward, Irenaeus insisted that the same four Gospels, and only those four, should be included in a sacred canon.

Irenaeus, whose life was described in an earlier volume of this series (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, chapter 5), was a practical fellow, whose interest in a canon was spurred in part by the religious heresies he sought to combat. These had their own sometimes-exotic ideas about which works to emphasize. The gnostics may have admired John, for example, but they also favored books such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. The mid-second-century heretic Marcion, on the other hand, was a pruner: He embraced ten Epistles of Paul and only one Gospel–Luke’s–which he then proceeded to edit (“mutilate” is how one historian describes it). The sect founded by Montanus, meanwhile, drifted the other way, adopting a more open-ended attitude toward sacred writings while accepting new and controversial prophecies. The historian Hans von Campenhausen argued that the challenge of Montanism, above all else, “brought about the concentration of the canon in a ‘New Testament.’”

Heresy, persecution, and the growing confidence of the Christian community in its own mature insight into the faith all goaded Christians into defining a canon. Yet not every decision turned out to be as straightforward as those involving the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles. Most of the remaining books were not as well known or as broadly used, or they had at least some influential objections that had to be overcome. Those books were:

The Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Philemon, and Titus): These were among the thirteen letters of Paul that were embraced almost universally once they achieved wide distribution, but the pastorals nevertheless did generate mild controversy on two fronts. Since they targeted heresy, heretics themselves bitterly denounced them. More significantly, Second Timothy was attacked even by some orthodox Christians for its reference to nonscriptural books; Origen demolished this concern by pointing out that First Corinthians did the same thing, yet no one had sought to banish it from the core of sacred texts. The pastorals easily survived the storm.

The Acts of the Apostles: Written by Luke along with his Gospel, Acts was never really disputed, but it still didn’t come into its own as acknowledged Scripture until late in the second century. It may be that finally recognizing Acts was a powerful way for mainstream Christians to reinforce the importance of the apostolic tradition against the contrary claims of heretics.

The Epistle to the Hebrews: Doubts about authorship have dogged the Epistle to the Hebrews almost from the beginning, while delaying its entry into the Western canon until the fourth century. To some readers, Hebrews seemed to radiate a more elegant, literary style than the rest of Paul’s letters. Even more suspicious from the orthodox point of view, the heretical Montanists seemed partial to chapter 6. However, the Greek East had no hesitation regarding Hebrews, attributing it all along to Paul, and as time passed, the Eastern view prevailed over that of the dubious West. By the time of Eusebius, the great church historian of the early fourth century, Hebrews was firmly back in the fold, listed as one of the New Testament books universally considered sacred. Yet its life of controversy was hardly over: More than a thousand years later, Luther and Calvin would resurrect questions about its authorship, though not its canonicity–Luther postulating that it was written by Paul’s trusty colleague Apollos. Such questions persist to this day.

The Catholic Epistles (James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter; 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Jude): Dubbed catholic, meaning “general,” because they are not addressed to any specific community, these seven epistles include several that were not accepted without reservation until well into the fourth century. First Peter and First John were the exceptions; they were widely embraced, even in the second century. Jude’s movement into the canon appears to have been relatively uneventful too: It was written very early, it achieved wide distribution by the second century, and it was recognized as Scripture by the so-called Muratorian Canon, an early Christian Scripture list published around 200. Yet Jude’s acceptance must have been fragile: The book also found its way onto a list of disputed texts that the historian Eusebius of Caesarea compiled more than one hundred years later, as did James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John.

The Epistle of James: C. F. Evans, in The Cambridge History of the Bible, calls James “perhaps the biggest riddle of the New Testament.” Scholars dispute who wrote it, when it was written, for whom, and for what purpose. It is first mentioned by Irenaeus, and while Origen seemed to consider it Scripture, he admits that his view was not the dominant one in the third century. The fourth century was the turning point, the key date being 367, when Athanasius confirmed the apostolic status of the letter. Jerome accepted this opinion when he began his seminal translation of the Bible a few years later, while St. Augustine’s writings also reveal the greatest respect for the Epistle of James. Thus the die was cast.

Second Peter: Not only was 2 Peter one of the last books to gain entry into the New Testament canon, it was also, in the opinion of a number of modern scholars, quite possibly the last New Testament text to be written–although at the absolute latest by 125. Origen is the first writer we know to mention it, and it apparently remained obscure and neglected well into the third century.

Revelation: This was the final book to enter the New Testament canon, but it was delayed because of resistance by leaders of the Eastern churches. In the West, the Book of Revelation was prized steadily from the second century on–as were, to a lesser degree, two other apocalyptic books: The Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter. To many Eastern ears, however, apocalyptic writings had too much in common with extravagant claims by the Montanist sect of a “new prophecy”–and it didn’t help matters that the Montanists themselves admired the Book of Revelation to no end. It is still not read in the worship services of the Eastern church.

In addition, there was the nagging question of who wrote it. Eusebius tells us that Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, midway through the third century, produced a sophisticated analysis of Revelation’s style, and concluded that the author could not possibly have been John the Evangelist. Nor was Eusebius himself an enthusiast of Revelation. He lists it among the New Testament books, but grudgingly adds, “should it seem right.” It did seem right in the West, where Revelation would appear in Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible.

Christians, of course, believe that the New Testament books are the Word of God, and so they naturally balk at the possibility of an arbitrary or haphazard selection of their sacred canon. But Christians of the early church did not believe they were making arbitrary selections, either. They saw the guidance of the Holy Spirit behind the formal and informal processes that eventually settled on a closed body of New Testament Scripture, just as the Holy Spirit had inspired those who wrote the Word in the first place.

What is remarkable, in any case, is how little high-level debate was even necessary, given the scope of the possible wrangling and the circumstances of the time. After all, Jesus himself did not author any text. His early followers relied on oral accounts of his mission and its meaning. Meanwhile, the books that came to comprise the New Testament were written independently, usually for a specific purpose, and often for a specific audience. They were not easy nor inexpensive to copy, let alone to combine into a unitary text the size of the New Testament, so that even the concept of a canon did not readily spring to mind. For that matter, the Jews at the time of Christ had not yet set limits on their Scripture, either.

The wonder is not that Christians took many years to define a canon, but that they managed to do so largely by reaching a grassroots consensus based upon common usage. Various church councils–in Rome in 382, in Hippo in 393 and in Carthage in 397, for example–approved the New Testament canon as we accept it today, but they were mainly ratifying with formal action what the body of the faithful already had established in practice.

It was the Christian community as a whole, by and large, that decided what was true to the tradition of their faith, and faithful to the message of their Savior. And the durability of their decision, nearly two millennia later, is testimony itself to their inspired wisdom.

This is the end of the New Testament category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 90, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about New Testament from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at