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I'm interested in finding out:

  1. what the process of choosing the books of the New Testament was,
  2. when did it occur,
  3. who did the choosing, and
  4. what are the supporting evidences
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up vote 21 down vote accepted

The canon developed gradually over the course of more than 300 years. In many cases, when decisions were made, they were simply to acknowledge what was already being read in the churches.

The process started early. Already in 2 Peter 3:16, there is a reference to the letters of Paul:

There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

So at least some of the churches were already circulating Paul's letters and reading them as scripture.

The Gospels were written after Paul's letters, and the Apostolic Fathers quoted most often from Matthew, but also sometimes from Mark and Luke, and eventually from John.

By the late 2nd century, Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.11.8) was claiming that the canon must contain exactly four gospels:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.

This was to counter fringe groups that were producing their own gospels, as well as Marcion, who argued for just one gospel (Luke).

We don't know who compiled the list known as the Muratorian Fragment, but it also dates from the second century and contains this canon:

  • Four gospels (the existing fragment begins by naming Luke as the third and John as the fourth)
  • The Book of Acts
  • Thirteen letters of Paul (and then names two letters attributed to Paul but not accepted as genuine)
  • Jude
  • Two letters from John
  • Revelations "of John and Peter"
  • "the Wisdom written by friends of Solomon in his honour"

Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John were not yet accepted.

The fragment also recommends the Shepherd of Hermas as being worth reading but not qualifying for the canon because it was written "quite lately in our time".

By the early fourth century, the church historian Eusebius (Church History 3.25) sorts the known early writings into cateogories.

The first category is:

  • Four Gospels plus Acts

Next in importance are:

  • The letters of Paul
  • One letter each from John and Peter

These are the writings that are universally accepted by the church. Eusebius adds that some believe Revelation should be included in this set.

The next category includes books that are disputed by some:

  • James
  • Jude
  • 2 and 3 John
  • 2 Peter

These would all eventually be added to the canon.

The next category includes books that rejected from the canon but worth reading:

  • Acts of Paul
  • The Shepherd
  • Apocalypse of Peter
  • Letter from Barnabas
  • The Teaching of the Apostles

He mentions that some would place Revelation in this group, and others would include the Gospel of the Hebrews.

And finally, Eusebius mentions other writings that are considered heretical, which he says should be "cast aside as absurd and impious." These include the gospels of Peter and Thomas, among others.

The first known list of canon that matches today's New Testament is found in the Easter Letter of Athanasius for the year 367:

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

Athanasius then adds that other books—the Wisdom of Solomon, the Shepherd, the Teaching of the Apostles, et al.—should be read by new converts. So even as the canon was being defined, there was recognition that among the excluded books were some that were part of the church teaching, and some that were not.

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Is there a reason why the non-canonical "useful" books do not appear to be used in any observable capacity today? (At least as a Protestant speaking). – Ben Mordecai Jan 1 '15 at 18:17
@BenMordecai From a Protestant perspective they are unnecessary. According to the principle of Sola Scriptura, whatever is useful in them can already be found in the canonical books. – Bruce Alderman Jan 2 '15 at 16:41
Luther in his preface to the New Testament considered them non-canonical but also called them "good and useful to read" – Ben Mordecai Jan 3 '15 at 1:18

Let me give you the original document of Council Of Carthage AD 419

Canon 24. (Greek xxvii.)

That nothing be read in church besides the Canonical Scripture

Item, that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture.

But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows:

Joshua the Son of Nun.
The Judges.
The Kings, iv. books.
The Chronicles, ij. books.
The Psalter.
The Five books of Solomon.
The Twelve Books of the Prophets.
Ezra, ij. books.
Macchabees, ij. books.
The New Testament.
The Gospels, iv. books.
The Acts of the Apostles, j. book.
The Epistles of Paul, xiv.
The Epistles of Peter, the Apostle, ij.
The Epistles of John the Apostle, iij.
The Epistles of James the Apostle, j.
The Epistle of Jude the Apostle, j.
The Revelation of John, j. book.
Let this be sent to our brother and fellow bishop, Boniface, and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.

Here, the council take a decision to send the list to BONIFACE bishop of Rome, again in the council of Hippo, it was mentioned that "send the list to Rome and ratify it" It was the Roman Church who decided the canon, based on apostolic tradition..

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Welcome to Christianity.SE! – Richard Sep 26 '11 at 17:15

This is hard to reference because it's a fairly organic process, but the works translated by St. Jerome into Latin to make up the Vulgate (People's) Bible are the ones that were read during early liturgies.

From a doctrinal stand point, this is the other answer:

The Synod of Hippo, in northern Africa, in 393, approved the New Testament, as it stands today, together with the Septuagint books, as did the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. St. Augustine regarded the scriptural canon as closed, as did Pope Damasus I and the Council of Rome in 382. Damasus' commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the Latin speaking world.


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When the Canon of the Scripture was closed, it already contained a list of books that were widely accepted as authoritative in the Christian communities spread all over the known world.

What we know today as deuterocanonical (or apocryphal) books of the New Testament were considered heretic very early in the history of the Christian communities. So there was never really a given time when people gathered and examined books to decide which ones would be included and which ones wouldn't.

Wikipedia has some interesting information about the Christian Canon.

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