Question: Isn't our New Testament just one possible assemblage of writings among many? Isn't it true that there were a bunch of gospels that didn't make it, and the Bible we have today was arbitrarily picked by an emperor's council to say what he wanted it to say?
(Painting of Saint Augustine at the Council of Carthage, Public Domain, obtained from Wikimedia Commons)
There are some kernels of truth that reside within the question. It is true that there were alternative documents that claimed to be written by apostles. There were alternative Gospels. Some of the writings that did make it into our Bible were disputed by some groups of Christians. Clearly the church has been taken in at times by forged documents, and one could cite as examples, the widespread acceptance of the "Donation of Constantine", and the excitement in the Medieval era over the supposed writings of Dionysius the Areopagite.
Nicaea and other 4th Century Councils
However, there was far less controversy than has been purported by some. By the time Constantine assembled the Council of Nicaea, the books of the New Testament had already been widely agreed upon. The Nicene Council didn't actually have anything to do with the biblical canon, as is commonly claimed, but some Bibles were commissioned afterward, and this has given us a list of books that were commonly regarded as scripture by that time.
In the year 397 The present day canon was accepted by the Synod of Carthage. The key phrasing here was Recipemos, meaning "we receive". The council did not view their role as deciding or picking the scriptural canon but rather as ratifying a list that already existed.
The criteria for canon are the following:
1. Apostolic origin:
2. Reception by the primitive church
Early testimony regarding the New Testament Canon
The New Testament books were all written in the first century, by the early disciples of Jesus (known to us as the "apostles"), or their close associates. No less a person than Saint Peter himself, refers to the writings of St. Paul, and seems to equate them with other scriptures:
"His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction." (2 Peter 3:16)
Clement of Rome, in about the year 96, wrote about the gospel and Clement emphasizes the importance of apostolic authority: "The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ". His writings confirm the existence and authority of Mark’s Gospel, 1 Corinthians and some of the letters of Paul.
In the mid 100's Irenaus wrote of the four Gospels. His writings also quoted from 21 of the New Testament books and he furthermore named the author he thought wrote the text. In addition to the Gospels, he referred to Acts, the Pauline epistles with the exception of Hebrews and Philemon, as well as the first epistle of Peter, and the first and second epistles of John, and the book of Revelation. Irenaeus argued that it was illogical to reject Acts of the Apostles but accept the Gospel of Luke, as both were from the same author.
Impetus to “fix” the New Testament canon emerged in response to the early heretic Marcion, who rejected the authority of the Old Testament. He recognized only the Gospel of Luke, though edited and altered, and he accepted ten of the letters of Paul.
In about AD 170 the document now known as the "Muratorian Fragment" was written, which contains mention of the majority of the books of the New Testament: These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3rd John), and Revelation. It did leave out the epistles of Peter, Hebrews, James; and it included the Apocalypse of Peter, but with reservation, admitting that this was not universally accepted.
By the year 220, our present day New Testament was pretty well in place. Eusebius (260-340) presented a list of accepted books (the four gospels, Acts, the writings of Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John. The disputed books are discussed and divided into two subclasses; Those that should be included in the cannon included James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. He was sketchy about the book of Revelation. He rejected The Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, The Apocalypse of Peter, the Didache, and Barnabas. Athanasius (296-373) provided a list of the current 27 books of the New Testament in his Easter letter of 367.
And what of the Non canonical books? Only a few garnered serious consideration for inclusion in the New Testament. Most of these books were written later than the apostolic writings. Here is an excerpt from Voorwinde:
Other Writings: Tertullian, Irenaeus and Clement cite the Shepherd of Hermas as Scripture. However, after 200 a series of ecclesiastical decisions began to loosen the bond between The Shepherd and other books. It is done rather mildly — it is to be read privately and for edification, but not to be read publicly with the prophets and the apostles. This attitude is already expressed in the Muratorian Canon which states: ".... it should be read, indeed, but it cannot be published to the people in Church either along with the prophets, whose number is complete, or with the apostles of these last days." This seems to be an attempt to develop a deutero-canon. This attitude, however, seals the fate of The Shepherd.
The letters of Clement of Rome, especially 1 Clement (95 AD), were used in worship services, particularly in Corinth. However, 1 Clement never enjoyed widespread canonical recognition.
The Apocalypse of Peter, the Didache, and the Acts of Paul (Latin) were other such documents. They were accepted for a time in limited circles, but eventually were excluded by all.
Testimony about Early Scripture, either "(cited)" or "named as authentic" or "?named as disputed" by the sources below.
|Present Day NT||Clement of Rome (96 AD)||Polycarp (110-150)||Hermas (115-140)||Didache (120-150)||Irenaeus (130-202)||Justin Martyr (150-155)||Clement of Alexandria (150—212)||Tertullian (150-220)||Muratorian Fragment (about 170)||Origen (185-220)||Old Latin Translation (about 200)|
|1st Corinthians||1 Cor||(1 Cor)||(1 Cor)||(1 Cor)||1 Cor||(1 Cor)||1 Cor||(1 Cor)||1 Cori||(1 Cor)||1 Cor|
|2nd Cor||(2 Cor)||(2 Cor)||2 Cor||(2 Cor)||2 Cor||(2 Cor)||2 Cor||(2 Cor)||2 Cor|
|1st Thessalonians||(1 Thess)||(1 Thess)||(1 Thess)||1 Thess||(1 Thess)||1 Thess||(1 Thess)||1 Thess||(1 Thess)||1 Thess|
|2nd Thess||(2 Thess)||2 Thess||(2 Thess)||2 Thess||(2 Thess)||2 Thess||(2 Thess)||2 Thess|
|1st Timothy||(1 Timothy)||(1 Timothy)||(1 Timothy)||(1 Timothy)||(1 Timothy)||1 Timothy||(1 Timothy)||1 Timothy||(1 Timothy)||1 Timothy|
|2nd Timothy||(2 Timothy)||(2 Timothy)||(2 Timothy)||2 Timothy||(2 Timothy)||2 Timothy|
|1st Peter||(1 Peter)||(1 Peter)||1 Peter||(1 Peter)||1 Peter||(1 Peter)||1 Peter|
|2nd Peter||(2 Peter)||?2 Peter|
|1st John||(1 John)||(1 John)||1 John||1 John||(1 John)||1 John||1 John|
|2nd John||(2 John)||(2 John)||2 John||?2 John||2 John|
|3rd John||3 John||?3 John||3 John|
Sources of Further Information:
- Bible Research by Michael Marlowe. This is really a clearing house for many useful sources of information, including essays by F.F. Bruce, and the Voorwinde excerpt above.
- Ten Basic Facts About the New Testament Canon That Every Christian Should Memorize by Michael Kruger.
- Voorwinde, Stephen. "The Formation of the New Testament Canon." Vox Reformata, 60 (1995); accessible online at Bible-Researcher.