How Were the New Testament Books Chosen?
The New Testament is made up of 27 separate books. Many other books, however, in theory, could have been included. We saw last time that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, for example, weren’t the only gospels in circulation. Others, such as the gospels of Thomas and Judas, claimed to tell the real story. Yet, they didn’t make it into the Bible. Many other early Christian works, some purportedly written by apostles, were also left out. That raises the question: How did the early Church decide which books to include and which to exclude?
Initially, there was no set list. The various Christian writings simply circulated separately among the different churches. But, as divergent theological views started to emerge, church leaders wanted to delineate which books actually contained authoritative teaching. Various lists were put forth at different times. Then in 367 AD, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, published a list containing the 27 books that currently comprise the New Testament. Those 27 books were also later sanctioned at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD and again in 397 AD by the Council of Carthage (Blomberg 2010, 235).
Some scholars argue those lists were just attempts to stamp out other competing Christian views. As they see it, no book initially was thought to have any more authority than any other. However, certain books were later labeled authoritative because their teachings supported the views of those in power. By selecting those books, church leaders were able to suppress views they didn’t like. If a different group had been in power, different books would have been chosen. That view, however, ignores the basis on which those decisions were actually made.
The most important criterion for the early church was a book’s apostolic pedigree. For Christians, Jesus was the ultimate authority. But, Jesus had personally commissioned the apostles to carry on his ministry. In that sense, Jesus had passed his own authority on to the apostles. A book with apostolic origins, therefore, was authoritative in a way other books were not, and it possessed that authority the moment it was written. The goal of the church was, thus, to identify those books that were inherently authoritative, not to invest certain books with authority after the fact (Kruger 2012, 175-189).
Some might ask, “How could apostolic origins have been the determining factor when not every New Testament book was actually written by an apostle?” Mark, for example, wasn’t an apostle, and the early church was fully aware of that. Yet, Mark’s gospel was included in the New Testament. Why?
For the early church, the issue was about more than just authorship. It was about authority. And a book could have apostolic authority behind it, even if it wasn’t directly written by an apostle. Imagine the manager of your department sends the assistant manager to you with directions on how to complete your project. To the extent the assistant manager accurately conveys those directions, they carry the full weight of the department manager’s authority. The department manager is in essence speaking through the assistant manager. In a similar way, the early church viewed the apostles as speaking through certain individuals they had entrusted with their message.
The gospel of Mark was accepted as authoritative from the beginning because, although Mark was not an apostle, he was an associate of Peter – who was an apostle. Peter, therefore, would have been the source of most of Mark’s information. In the eyes of the early church, that meant Mark’s gospel embodied Peter’s teaching and authority. In the same way, Luke’s gospel was viewed as embodying Paul’s teaching and authority (Kruger 2012, 110, 181-185).
The apostolic requirement explains why other potential books were excluded. On the one hand, many early Christian writing never claim to have apostolic credentials. On the other hand, those that do make such claims but aren’t in the New Testament, were written too late to have any real apostolic connection. As we saw last time, the gospel of Judas, for example, was written in the mid-second century AD – long after the apostles were gone.
In short, a book’s underlying apostolic authority determined whether it was included in the New Testament or not. Having said that, a handful of books presented the early church with difficult questions. For example, no one was sure who wrote the book of Hebrews. Some were concerned about James because it appeared to contradict Paul on the relationship between faith and works. Questions were also raised about 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation. We’ll take a look at how the Church settled those questions next time.
Blomberg, Craig L. 2010. The New Testament Canon in Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy and Science. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Kruger, Michael J. 2012. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Wheaton: Crossway.