39

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
23
+50

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.

Following Athanasius, we see the beginning of a general agreement throughout the church. The Synod of Hippo in 393 published a list of New Testament books identical to Athanasius' list, but also included an Old Testament canon. The Council of Carthage of 397 published a similar list, but is notable for separating Hebrews from the letters of Paul. The Latin Vulgate translation, commissioned by Pope Damasus in 382 and completed by Jerome in 405, contains the same set of books listed in these. The Decretum Gelasianum, widely thought to be associated with the same Pope Damasus, lists the same 27 books but makes a distinction among the letters of John ("of the Apostle John, one letter, of the other John the Elder, two letters").

The Council of Carthage of 419 lists the same books, but does not make a distinction between two writers named John, and does not separate Hebrews from the letters of Paul.

In the East, there would still be disagreement for more than a century. The Council of Laodicea of 364 accepted all of the current New Testament books except Revelation. The Apostolic Constitutions, compiled around 380, has a Bible canon including this same list, but adding three writings attributed to Clement of Rome.

The first version of the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the Bible, omitted the books of 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation; these books would not be translated into Syriac until the 6th century.

The Quinisext Council or Council in Trullo was held in Constantinople in 692 to reaffirm the rulings of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumencal Councils; while this council did not publish a formal Bible canon, it did reaffirm the canons previously published, including those of Athanasius and others with the Book of Revelation. This set the stage for the 7th Ecumenical Council (Second Council of Nicea) in 787, which finally established what we now know as the 27-book New Testament canon for the entire church.

  • 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" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther%27s_canon – Ben Mordecai Jan 3 '15 at 1:18
  • You neglect the role of Church Councils in setting the canon. – guest37 Jan 5 '18 at 3:10
  • @guest37 Thanks for mentioning that. I've updated my answer. – Bruce Alderman Jan 9 '18 at 16:34
7

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:

Genesis.
Exodus.
Leviticus.
Numbers.
Deuteronomy.
Joshua the Son of Nun.
The Judges.
Ruth.
The Kings, iv. books.
The Chronicles, ij. books.
Job.
The Psalter.
The Five books of Solomon.
The Twelve Books of the Prophets.
Isaiah.
Jeremiah.
Ezechiel.
Daniel.
Tobit.
Judith.
Esther.
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..

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity.SE! – Richard Sep 26 '11 at 17:15
  • "It was the Roman Church who decided the canon, based on apostolic tradition..". The canons of the Council of Carthage applied only within the See of Rome. They codified the de facto canon recognized already in the eastern Sees. The canon for the entire Church was set by the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787 in Nicea (not Rome), which adopted the canons of Carthage along with the canons of the Council of Trullo (an eastern Council). – guest37 Jan 5 '18 at 3:15
4

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.

Source

2

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.

2

The New Testament Books were written by various authors, to various geographic regions (from Galatia to Rome), spread across time (from ~45 AD to as late as ~95 AD). It took time for them to spread, being copied and carried by hand across vast distances.

As such, if a church father did not mention a book from the new testament, the typical reason was simply that he hadn’t seen it yet!

To answer your question, let's start by reviewing how these books spread over time, in both acceptance and usage in the church.

~155 AD: Justin Martyr refers to the gospels.

Justin Martyr, The First Apology, Chapter 66. Of the Eucharist

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.

~170 AD: The Muratorian fragment lists 22 of the 27 New Testament books.

  • It excludes James, 1 & 2 Peter, Hebrews, and 3 John.
  • Curiously, it also includes the Deuterocanonical Old Testament Book of Wisdom in its New Testament canon.
  • It notes that some accept Apocalypse of Peter.
  • It also says that The Shepherd of Hermas should be read but not on same level as other scripture.
  • Finally, it explicitly rejects several Apocrypha.
  • The full text is available here.

~180 AD: Irenaeus quotes explicitly from 21 of the 27 New Testament books.

Of the 6 books remaining, he may refer to Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter.

He does not quote from Philemon, 3 John or Jude.

Irenaeus identifies The Shepherd of Hermas as Scripture.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 2

Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, "First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence: He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one." [The Shepherd of Hermas, Book 2, First Commandment]

He also seems to identify the letter of 1 Clement as authoritative in Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 3, Section 3 - as well as condemning the Gospel of Judas in Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 31, Section 1 + Section 4.

~250 AD: Origen's New Testament list includes 26 of the 27 NT books

Origen's list excludes Revelation.

Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 7.1

But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing “trumpets hammered thin,” the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, “I think God displays us apostles last,” and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations.

He does quote from Revelation elsewhere in his writings, though.

Origen, Expositions on the Gospel of John

The one who reclined on Jesus' breast, John, who left behind one gospel while admitting that he could produce so many that the world would not be able to contain them [John 21:25]. He also wrote the Apocalypse, after being ordered to be silent and not to write what the seven thunders said [Rev 10:3-4]...

~350 AD: Cyril of Jerusalem's New Testament list includes 26 of the 27 NT books

Cyril of Jerusalem's list excludes Revelation.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 4, #36

Then of the New Testament there are the four Gospels only, for the rest have false titles and are mischievous. The Manichæans 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. And whatever books are not read in Churches, these read not even by yourself, as you have heard me say.

367 AD: Athanasius's New Testament list includes all 27 books

Athanasius, Letter 39

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.

Noteworthy is that in that same letter Athanasius gives an Old Testament list which includes the Deuterocanonical book of Baruch, but excludes the book of Esther.

382 AD: Council of Rome's New Testament list includes all 27 books

Council of Rome

Now indeed the issue of the divine scriptures must be discussed, which the universal Catholic church receives or which it is required to avoid...

LIKEWISE THE ORDER OF THE SCRIPTURES OF THE NEW TESTAMENT which the holy and catholic Roman church upholds and is venerated:

Four books of the Gospels: according to Mathew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John. Likewise the acts of the apostles. The letters of the apostle Paul in number fourteen: to the Romans, to the Corinthians two letters, to the Ephesians, to the Thesalonians two letters, to the Galatians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, to Timothy two letters, to Titus, to the Philemon, to the Hebrews. Likewise the apocalypse of John. Likewise the canonical [catholic] letters in number seven: of the apostle Peter two letters, of the apostle James one letter, of the apostle John one letter, of the other John the elder two letters, of the apostle Judas the Zealot one letter.

HERE ENDS THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.

In addition to including all 27 New Testament books, it includes the Deuterocanonical books in the Old Testament (which Protestants reject).

~390 AD: Gregory of Nazianzus' New Testament list includes 26 of the 27 NT books

Gregory of Nazianzus's list excludes Revelation.

Concerning the Genuine Books of Divinely Inspired Scripture (poem)

Now count also those of the new mystery. Matthew wrote the miracles of Christ for the Hebrews, Mark for Italy, Luke for Greece; John for all, the great herald, who walked in the heavens. Then the acts of the wise apostles. Of Paul there are fourteen epistles. And the seven catholic, [which include] one of James, two of Peter, three of John also; and Jude is the seventh. You have them all. And if there are any beyond these, they are not genuine.

393 AD: Council of Hippo's New Testament list includes all 27 books

Council of Hippo

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

But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows: Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy. Joshua the Son of Nun. The Judges. Ruth. The Kings, iv. books.

The Chronicles, ij. books. Job. The Psalter. The Five books of Solomon. The Twelve Books of the Prophets. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Ezechiel. Daniel. Tobit. Judith. Esther. 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.

In addition to including all 27 New Testament books, it includes the Deuterocanonical books in the Old Testament (which Protestants reject).

397 AD: Council of Carthage's New Testament list includes all 27 books

Synod of 397

It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Paraleipomena, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John.

In addition to including all 27 New Testament books, it includes the Deuterocanonical books in the Old Testament (which Protestants reject).

Consensus Period

At this point, with Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation, the New Testament translation was set and remained unchanged for a thousand years, until the Reformation came...

1534 AD: Martin Luther's New Testament list includes all 27 books... kind of.

In 1534, Luther’s Bible translation was published. In it, he moves Deuterocanon to the end of his Old Testament and labels them "Apocrypha".

Apocrypha (Deuterocanon) introduction, Luther’s Bible

These books are not held equal to the Scriptures, but are useful and good to read

Similar to his Apocrypha, he was skeptical of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, and stuck them at the end of his New Testament, saying "Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation."

Preface to the Epistle to the Hebrews

Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation... This seems, as it stands, to be against all the Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles... [The Epistle to the Hebrews] we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles.

Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude

...I do not regard it [the epistle of St. James] as the writing of an apostle; and my reasons follow. In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works... He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture... Therefore, I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books

Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude

Concerning the epistle of St. Jude... it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are supposed to lay the foundations of faith.

Preface to the Revelation of St. John

About this book of the Revelation of John... it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic... I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.

Luther did not dare to remove these New Testament books, or the Deuterocanonical books, as they'd both been in the Christian bible for a thousand years.

His followers and subsequent reformers backed away from his New Testament Antilegomena division, but they kept his Old Testament Apocrypha division. The Apocrypha remained in Protestant bibles until the English civil war, which lasted from 1642 to 1649. The English Long Parliament of 1644 decreed that the Deuterocanonical books would not be read in the Church of England, and in 1647 the Westminster Confession of Faith was issued which decreed the modern Protestant bible with the Deuterocanon completely removed (no longer in a separate section in the back).

With the restoration of the monarchy to Charles II of England (1660-1685), the Church of England was once again governed by the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Deuterocanon was included again in their bible, but the genie was out of the bottle - the Westminster Confession of faith continued to exist, and Presbyterians and Baptists (among many other denominations) accept the canon it declared with the Deuterocanonical books completely removed.

So in summary, the New Testament books were not specifically chosen at a single moment in time. They spread gradually geographically, and a consensus was fairly rapidly established around most of the books. A couple edge cases existed until the councils in the late fourth century, and from those councils on they were fully established until the Reformation - which poked at them a bit, and then backed off.

The above references were taken from here

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