Building the Canon

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Ever since my college years at Southern Methodist University the study of the New Testament has been a favorite of mine. Of special interest to me has been the field of study known as “Canonical Criticism,” which is, in part, devoted to uncovering the development of the New Testament itself.

Put simply, the New Testament did not materialize out of thin air; it didn’t descend from heaven to the apostles as they prayed in the upper room; it didn’t just appear out of thin air. Think about it for a minute: the many books and letters of the New Testament first had to be written. Paul had to make his missionary journeys, establish his churches, and then write to them long before his letters could be collected and copied (by hand—they had no copy machines). The earliest piece of literature to be included in the New Testament is most probably 1 Thessalonians, which can easily be dated (depending upon who you ask) to about the year 50 AD. The rest of Paul’s letters date from the early 50s until about 63 AD, when he was executed in Rome. The Gospel of Mark was probably written sometime after the death of Peter, who was also executed in 63 AD, because we know of an early second century Bishop and church historian named Papias who tells us that Mark wrote down the words of Peter and then, after the Apostle’s death, formed them into the Gospel as we have it today. Most scholars agree that Mark was written either just before or just after 70 AD, which would agree with what Papias tell us. It is most likely that Matthew and Luke used Mark as an outline for their Gospels, along with a now lost book that many scholars believe was written soon after the death of Jesus and which contained only the sayings of our Lord. Luke also wrote a companion book to his Gospel, called The Acts of the Apostle’s, which can also be easily dated. Indeed, Matthew and Luke were both probably written shortly after 75 AD, and Acts was probably written at around AD 80-85.

I could go on, but for brevity’s sake let us just say that by the year 100 AD all the books which we now find in the New Testament had been written, and that the letters of Paul had been collected. This does not mean, however, that these were the only Christian writings that the early church used; quite the contrary, there were literally dozens of Gospels and hundreds of different letters to read. Some of this material has survived to today, but not in the Bible. The simple fact is that someone, somewhere and somewhen, decided which books and which letters would be compiled together to make up the Christian Testament. And, surprisingly enough, Church history gives us many of the steps that comprise the collection and adoption of the New Testament. Only, for whatever reason, most people don’t know about it.

It may come as a surprise to you, but even as late as the year 300 AD there was still no official Church position as to which books should be included in the New Testament. There were many different lists circulating among the various regional churches and, while there was a general sense of agreement as to the canonicity (i.e. "authenticity") of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the letters of Paul, there was far less agreement on much of the rest of the New Testament. The earliest list, which comes from a heretical group lead by a man named Marcion and is dated at about 150 AD, has only the Gospel of Luke and 10 of the letters of Paul. The first list published by the Church at Rome has the four Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the letters of Peter and John. Some areas believed that The Gospel of the Hebrews should be added, and the Gnostic churches of north Africa wanted the addition of a whole slew of books, including The Gospel of Thomas. Needless to say, there was a lot of confusion as to which books should be considered canonical. Indeed, the later you go the more confusing things get. By about 200 AD some lists supported the authority of the letter of James and the Book of Revelation, while other lists did not; indeed, many lists included books like The Shepherd of Hermas, but didn’t include James or Revelation.

It wasn’t until the year 367 AD that the current contents of the New Testament were identified by Athanasius, who at the time was the Archbishop of Alexandria. Indeed, so sure was he that his list was the correct one that he sealed it with the following words:

These are the “springs of salvation,” so that one who is thirsty may be satisfied with the oracles which are in them. In these alone is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as good news. Let no one add to these or take anything from them.

I cannot think of a better description of the New Testament than this: they are the “springs of salvation.” But why did our Fathers and Mothers in the Faith require almost 300 years to decide which documents constitute the “springs?”

I can think of many reasons, but the simplest of them all is the best: human error. We are not perfect, and neither were the saints who came before us in the Faith. They listened to the voice of God as best they could when they wrote the scriptures, and they did the same when they chose which books would make up the scriptures, but they were not perfect—and neither are we. Frankly, I think it’s a miracle that they managed to listen well enough to the Spirit to get it right at all. Let us all pray for similar ears.

© 1995, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.