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HISTORY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CANONIZATION


A BRIEF INTRODUCTION

-M.r Billy J Zorinthara


Department of Church History and Mission

Introduction
The word canon comes from the Greek kanon, a straight, inflexible rod. The root is a
Mediterranean word that appears in Hebrew as qaneh , reed. Because such a rod could be used
for measurement, the term became synonymous with a measuring stick or ruler. When it was used
to measure abstractions, canon took on the meaning of a rule or a norm. It is in this sense that
it appears in Galatians 6:16: As for those who will follow this rule [ kanon ], peace be upon them.
This passage and 1 Corinthians 10:13, 15, 16 comprise its total usage in the New Testament. In
the second century proto orthodox Church Fathers began to write of the rule of faith (or truth)
as the norm or measurement of emerging orthodoxy in the face of competing interpretations of
Christianity (cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies , 3.4.1 2; Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies , 4.15;
Tertullian, Prescription Against Heresies , 12 13).

The word could also signify a list, but its first known use to designate a specific list of
authoritative Christian books appears relatively late, in Athanasius Decrees of the Synod of
Nicaea (written shortly after 350 CE), where he declares that the Shepherd of Hermas is not in
the canon It is in fact Athanasius himself, who, in his thirty - ninth festal letter (367 CE),
compiled the first canon list that contains the twenty - seven books of our own New Testament, no
more and no less, though he does not list them in their modern order. Just because such a list was
in existence at this time, however, does not mean that the New Testament canon was closed; that
is, that everyone in Christendom accepted only those books. Athanasius did not speak for the
universal church, and diversity in the lists and in other documents continued after 367, particularly
regarding the book of Revelation and some of the Catholic Epistles.

Marcionism
Marcion was a wealthy businessman who owned ships in the black sea. He visited Rome in about
140 A.D. Disputes and controversies started out with from his teachings, he felt that there is a
contradiction between Old Testament and New Testament. He accepted only Luke Gospel and 10
epistles of Paul (excluding 1 & Timothy and Titus).1 Marcion cut out the beginning of Luke up to
4:31. He did not wish it should be taught that Jesus was a Jew, born and brought up as Jewish,
fulfilling Jewish prophecy. In Luke 16:17, he altered the word Law into Word. Marcionite
Churches continued to exist for a hundred and fifty years.

Adolf von Harnack argued that Marcion was the sine qua non of the New Testament canon,
the one without whom it would not exist, but this opinion now finds few proponents. Marcions

1
John Foster, The First Advance AD 29-500, 54-56.
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concern was to exclude books that he disapproved of from his canon. He was not assembling a
collection of Christian books, but making a (very restricted) selection from the corpus of texts
which already existed and which must already have been recognized as sacred by many in the
church otherwise he would not have needed to insist on abolishing them. It is important to note
that Barton does not argue that there was a universally acknowledged, closed canon by the middle
of the second century, but simply that certain books were probably recognized as sacred by many
in the church at that time.2

As Christians faced heresies they felt the need to distinguish between those truly inspired
writings and the questionable.3 In fact, there were numerous writings and also translations.4 Apostolic
Fathers like Ignatius (Ca 115 A.D), Papias (Ca. 140A.D), and Irenaeus (Ca. 190 A.D) played
important part in shaping the canon, as they mentioned about the gospels in their writings.5
During 3rd century (Ca. 200A.D), Muratorian Canon (which will be delved in the later part of
this paper) of the Church of Rome was compiled, it included almost all the lists of the present Bible
with Revelation of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. During which other works like Didache,
Shepherd of Hermas and Letter of Barnabas were also highly regarded as scriptures. 6Important
development came in the fourth century, in Ca. 367 A.D, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria wrote his
widely circulated Easter Letter. In it he named the 27 books of the present New Testament. He stated
that no other scriptures could be regarded as Christian scriptures. The Council in Carthage in 397 A.D
confirmed the lists;7 it was also accepted by Synod of Rome (382 A.D) and Synod of Hippo Regius
(393 A.D).

The Criteria
Apostolicity
The Church responded to Marcion, and one of the major criteria was used by the Church to identify
the canon (canon in Greek means standard) was apostolic origin8 Paul was also included
as he had encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. By the end of the 2nd Century, the four
Gospels, Acts, and Pauls epistles were highly valued everywhere, although there was no official
list existed. 9

2
David E. Aune (ed),The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament ( West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell,2010), 96.
3
A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang & Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events, 37.
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Before epistles and Christians writings was canonized, translation already happened, for Instance, in 170 A.D, Tatian
of Assyria (probably Syria) edited the four gospels and composed into one called Diatesarron and then translated
into Syriac. See Claudio Moreschini & Enrico Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History,
Vol.1, translated by Matthew J. O Connell (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 204.
5
William G. Young, comp., Handbook of Source-Materials, 158-159.
6
A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang & Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events, 37.
7
A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang & Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events, 37-38.
8 They were written by eye witness to the life, death and resurrection of Christ (John 19:35; 1 John 1:3; 2 Pet. 1:16).
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A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang & Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events, 37.
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A prime example of this tradition is the testimony of Papias (d. ca. 130), the hearer of
John, who was a companion of Polycarp and one of the ancients, and the first witness available
to us who describes the genesis of the gospels of Mark (whom Papias claimed was the companion
of Peter) and Matthew (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History , 3.39.14 16). We have no direct
evidence that the early church ever challenged the gospels attributions to Matthew, Mark, Luke,
and John, but it did question the authorship of other books that eventually made up the New
Testament, including Hebrews and the Revelation of John, After the gospels, the Muratorian
fragment mentions Acts, written by Luke, who was, according to the author of the fragment, an
eyewitness to the events narrated therein. Luke compiled the Acts of the Apostles for the most
excellent Theophilus (Luke 1:3; cf. Acts 1:1). Always and everywhere the early church rightly
recognizes the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke as the author of Acts (cf. Origen in
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History , 6.15.14), but the two books never appear as a pair in any of the
canon lists or ancient manuscripts. The position of Acts varies in canon lists and codices,
sometimes appearing after the gospels, sometimes after the epistles of Paul, and sometimes at or
near the end of the lists10

Concerning the four gospels, writing around 180 CE, 150 years before Constantine,
Irenaeus of Lyons, our earliest source to discuss the issue, offers a lovely and poetic flight of
fantasy about the four gospels that tells us nothing historical. It is not possible that the Gospels
can be either more or fewer in number than they are, he writes, because there are four corners
of the earth, four principal winds, four beasts before the throne of God in the book of Revelation,
and four covenants that God made with humanity ( Against Heresies , 3.11.8). Origen, too (d.
ca. 254), writes that the four gospels are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under
heaven (as recorded by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History , 6.25.4). Eusebius doesnt even bother
to name them individually; he simply calls them the holy quaternion of the gospels (
Ecclesiastical History , 3.25.1). It seems that a collection of four separate and distinct gospels first
appeared in the western part of the empire (Lyons, Rome) and gradually was accepted as the norm
in the east (as attested by Origen and Eusebius). In Syria, however, it was a different story. There
not a collection but a harmonization of the four gospels was immensely popular. Around 170 CE,
the Syrian Christian Tatian produced the Diatessaron , a word translated literally as through the
four (gospels), which interwove the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as some
material that does not appear in any of them, into a continuous narrative. The Diatessaron
simultaneously attests the importance of the four gospels in this region of the church and
demonstrates quite a different mode of holding them authoritative than, for instance, Irenaeus did
when he highlighted them individually.11

As many as thirty - four gospels circulated in the early church, but four, no more and no
less, were accepted for use in the church, in the west by the mid - to late second century and slightly

10
David E. Aune (ed),The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament ( West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell,2010), 95
11
David E. Aune (ed),The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, 94
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later in the east. Proto - orthodox Christians distinguished among the many gospels in circulation
based on their perceived apostolic authorship (i.e., Matthew or John) or because their authors
purported close connections to the apostles (i.e., Mark and Luke), and because the accepted gospels
were consistent with the kanon , or rule of faith, in fighting against competing forms of
Christianity, particularly Gnosticism.12

Muratorian Canon13is the list of canonical writings, written in Latin, has been accepted by
many scholars as the oldest list of canonical books and has been dated to about the year 200 CEo
There are very good reasons, however, for doubting this early date; a composition of this list in
the 4th century is more likely. While the inclusion of the four Gospels, the Pauline corpus, and
some catholic epistles into the New Testament is well accepted at the end of the 2d century-not
only Irenaeus, but also Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyprian agree with this
concept-the discussion of the inclusion or exclusion of specific writings, that is, the exact
delimitation of the canon, did not begin until the fourth century. The list of the Canon Muratori
enumerates the four Gospels, thirteen letters of Paul (without the Epistle to the Hebrews), the
Revelation of John and the Revelation of Peter, the Epistle of Jude, two Epistles of John, one of
Peter, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Explicitly rejected are the letters of Paul to the Laodiceans
and to the Alexandrians, and the writings of the heretics (Valentinus, Marcion, and others).

Orthodoxy
Closely related to the criterion of authority or apostolicity is the criterion of orthodoxy. Even if a
document claimed apostolic authorship, if it did not cohere to the emerging rule [ kanon ] of
truth/faith, it could not have been written by the putative author in the eyes of the proto - orthodox
Fathers. Eusebius writes that:[we have distinguished] between those writings which, according to
the tradition of the Church, are true and genuine and recognized, from the others which differ from
them in that they are not canonical [ endiath e kous ], but disputed, yet nevertheless are known to
most churchmen. [And this we have done] in order that we might be able to know both these same
writings and also those which the heretics put forward under the name of the apostles; including
for instance, such books as the Gospel of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias Moreover, the character
of the style also is far removed from apostolic usage, and the thought and purport of their contents
are completely out of harmony with true orthodoxy and clearly show that they are the forgeries of
heretics. ( Ecclesiastical History , 3.25.6 7)

12
David E. Aune (ed),The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament , 94-95
13
The Muratorian fragment is a copy of perhaps the oldest known list of most of the books of the New Testament.
The fragment, consisting of 85 lines, is a 7th-century Latin manuscript bound in a 7th or 8th century codex from the
library of Columban's monastery at Bobbio; it contains features suggesting it is a translation from a Greek original
written about 170 or as late as the 4th century. Both the degraded condition of the manuscript and the poor Latin in
which it was written have made it difficult to translate. The beginning of the fragment is missing, and it ends abruptly.
The fragment consists of all that remains of a section of a list of all the works that were accepted as canonical by the
churches known to its original compiler. It was discovered in the Ambrosian Library in Milan by Father Ludovico
Antonio Muratori(16721750), the most famous Italian historian of his generation, and published in 1740
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Universality:
Another Important criteria was universal usages, it is universal in a sense, accepted by many
churches during that time.Secondly the universality alone is not the criteria alone but it must edify
hence it must be inspired. In other word they were received by Gods people and showed Gods
power in changing live (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 2:13; 5:27; 1 Tim. 5:18; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet.3:16)